Subscribe for 99¢
ENTER-FIDDLER-MIRACLE-MIRACLES-MOVIE-REVIEW-GET

Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova in a 1964 Broadway production of "Fiddler on the Roof"

Michael Ochs Archives/Moviepix/Getty Images

Since its Broadway debut in 1964, the frequently revived musical “Fiddler on the Roof” has been performed somewhere on the planet every day. How did a play set in 1905 Russia — in a shtetl named Anatevka inhabited by Hasidic Jews about a devoted, but inquisitive dairyman named Tevye — capture the hearts and minds of the world and come to be performed in such far-flung ports as Japan and Thailand?

It was a universal tale of religion, oppression, yes, tradition, genocidal hatred and forced migration. It was a tale based the stories of Soviet-Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem about a Job-like Jew with five daughters, who had no money but was blessed with a loving wife and family — not to mention the music of composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joseph Stein. The sets by Boris Aronson were based on the work of Jewish-Russian-French artist Marc Chagall. Let’s not forget that the musical was directed and choreographed by the legendary Jerome Robbins of “West Side Story” fame. If they weren’t rich men before the show opened, they were after it did, deedle-deedle-dum.

Max Lewkowicz’s documentary “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is a marvelous recollection of the beloved musical’s birth and long life as a staple of the American stage with a proud place in its national songbook. Is there an adult who doesn’t know one or more of the songs or can’t sing along? Lin-Manuel Miranda certainly can. When the show first opened at the Imperial Theater on 45th Street (before moving around the corner to the larger Majestic), the New York Times didn’t like it much, which is par for the course, but the lines stretched around the block, and the word of mouth made it a smash hit.

Lewkowicz assembles surviving cast members such as Austin Pendleton, who played Motel (Bette Midler played Tzeitel in the original run). The original Tevye was the great, larger-than-life Zero Mostel (“The Producers”), who was fond of ad-libbing, which drove the writers crazy, and had been blacklisted in the 1950s after refusing to name names and publicly ridiculing members of HUAC.

Mostel was followed by such memorable Tevyes as Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel and Leonard Nimoy, who had already originated the role of Spock on TV’s “Star Trek.” Joel Grey, who appeared in a Yiddish production of the musical, speaks to its universality. Someone describes “Fiddler on the Roof” as a “dark musical,” which ends with its characters penniless refugees.

Lewkowicz’s film features animation, Fran Lebowitz, Stephen Sondheim, Jessica Hecht and Itzhak Perlman. We are reminded that “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is a waltz and that this tale of match-making arrived on Broadway just as Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and feminism sprang up.

Another anecdote involves the director of the 1971 film version of the show, Norman Jewison, who is a “goy” in spite of that last name and who controversially chose Tel Aviv-born Topol to play Tevye. The Jewison film ran for three years in Madrid. The original stage production opened in Detroit during a newspaper strike. The rest is Broadway — and world — history. L’Chaim.

What “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 1:32 • Rating PG-13 • Content Mature themes and some disturbing images