Celebrating 50 years of Fiddler

Fiddler anniversary image

Since its blockbuster stage debut in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has served an astonishing range of cultural purposes. Along with the film version that followed, the influence of Fiddler on the Roof has been cross-cultural, ranging from rural U.S. high schools to the Tokyo stage and from scholarly studies to The Simpsons. 

Its songs have been performed at sacred ceremonies and incorporated into hip-hop hits. It has inspired religious conversion and secular satire. It has been lauded as one of the most finely wrought works for the Broadway stage-winning nine Tony Awards and spawning four Broadway revivals, and becoming the first musical production in history to surpass 3,000 performances. 

"Fiddler on the Roof touches on Jewish literature, music, history and changing concepts of Jewish identity," said Beth Schenker, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership's Director of Programming. "But you don't have to be Jewish to love Fiddler. Many of its themes are universal. It speaks about changing circumstances, family dynamics and the tension between old and new."

In April, to celebrate Fiddler on the Roof's 50th anniversary, Spertus Institute will present a trio of special programs:

Sunday, April 6, at 2 p.m., Alisa Solomon, who grew up in Highland Park, will discuss her new book, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. In a program titled "Fiddler's Fortunes: The Mighty Afterlife of a Broadway Musical," Solomon, a professor of Journalism at Columbia University and longtime drama critic for The Village Voice, will reveal where the power of Fiddler comes from and why this beloved musical-based on a story collection published by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem in 1894-is still relevant today. Tickets are $18 for members of the public, $10 for Spertus members and $8 for students. Wonder of Wonders will be available for purchase. Solomon will sign books following the program.

Sunday, April 6, at 5:30 p.m., the MGM film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof will be shown on the big screen in the Feinberg Theater at Spertus Institute. A gift to the community, Spertus presents the screening at no charge; however, advance reservations are required.

Monday, April 7 at 6:30 p.m., Spertus will host a rare screening of the 1939 Yiddish-language film, Tevye, a non-musical adaptation of the Sholem Aleichem stories that inspired Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye was the first non-English-language movie identified as "culturally significant" and selected for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress. Andrew Patner, Chicago-based arts critic, will facilitate a post-screening discussion. Tickets are $18 for members of the public, $10 for Spertus members and $8 for students.

Fiddler's history
The theatrical version of Fiddler on the Roof was written by Joseph Stein, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Set in 1905 Tsarist Russia, the play centers on Tevye, a Jewish milkman who struggles as the customs and religious traditions that have informed his life are challenged by changing times and his strong-willed daughters. The original production featured Broadway legends Zero Mostel as Tevye and Bea Arthur as Yente, the Matchmaker.

Due to the success of the stage play, in 1971, MGM studios adopted Fiddler on the Roof for the screen. Norman Jewison produced and directed the movie, most of which was filmed in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Like many film adaptations, Fiddler on the Roof had its share of controversy. When Jewison cast Israeli actor Chaim Topol rather than stage star Mostel as Tevye, he drew widespread criticism from the Broadway community. However, in 1971, Topol won a Golden Globe for Best Actor-and the film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy. Early the following year, Fiddler on the Roof won three of the eight Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Score, Best Sound and Best Cinematography.

Over the decades, Broadway productions of Fiddler have starred a range of actors. Tevye has been played by Harry Goz, who took over from Mostel; Paul Lipson, who performed as Tevye more than 2,000 times; Alfred Molina, who recently had roles in Spiderman 2 and Law and Order; and actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein. Bette Midler played Tzeitel in 1968 and Rosie O'Donnell played Golde in 2005.

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary, Spertus will offer an array of Fiddler online resources, including an historical timeline, essays, trivia contests and more. Visit Spertus.edu/Fiddler for information. 

Spertus Institute is a partner in serving the community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

If you go:

• Fiddler's Fortunes: The Mighty Afterlife of a Broadway Musical-Author Alisa Solomon discusses her new book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof - Sunday, April 6 at 2 p.m. ($18/$10/$8)

• Screening of MGM's Fiddler on the Roof-Sunday, April 6 at 5:30 p.m. (Free - reservations required)

• Screening of the 1939 film, Tevye-Art critic Andrew Patner leads follow-up discussion - Monday, April 7
at 6:30 p.m. ($18/$10/$8)

• Purchase tickets or make reservations online at Spertus.edu or call (312) 322-1773.

All events are at Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

Discount parking $10 with Spertus validation at Essex Inn, two blocks south of Spertus.

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