The Jewish community of Anatevka lives a modest but peaceful life in tsarist Russia. Farmer Tevier (Topol) works hard for his family, and dreams of marrying off his five daughters to well-to-do men, but he’s forced to confront fast-changing social values and a surge of antisemitism that threatens his way of life to its foundations.
Fiddler is everything a musical should be. It’s loud and uplifting, it has brilliantly staged song and dance numbers, it’s emotionally moving and it has a strong moral core. It boasts numerous great songs that you’ll recognise even if you’ve never seen it before, including Matchmaker, Tradition and If I Were a Rich Man; a song so good even Gwen Stefani couldn’t ruin it. Be prepared for foot tapping from beginning to end.
Topol gives a career-defining performance as the flawed but highly likeable Tevier, a man with traditionalist instincts but also a sincere desire to make his daughters happy. He’s not a million miles away from George Khan in East is East, but with singing in place of violence. He breaks the fourth wall by addressing his conversations with God directly to the audience – he’s a religious man, but not without a sense of humour.
This is one of the few truly epic musicals, as no expense is spared in bringing the town to life. Considering the last musical I watched was Mamma Mia! which can’t even be bothered to pretend it’s not filmed on a sound stage, it’s quite the step up. But even compared to films which do more than the absolute bare minimum, Fiddler on the Roof measures up. With its themes of racism, catchy music and epic Russian setting it’s Hairspray meets Doctor Zhivago and is a jewel in the crown of the musical genre.