Fiddler on the Roof is, after The Music Man, probably my favorite older musical. With music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, it made its Broadway debut in 1964, with Zero Mostel in the lead. In 1971 it was adapted into a movie starring Topol, who played the lead role on the London stage. The original Broadway production won nine Tony Awards and became the first musical in history to pass 3,000 performances in its run. It was the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years (until Grease, which is not nearly as good).
I have been able to see this show live twice, once at a dinner theater in Illinois, and once on Broadway with Alfred Molina. Both productions were deeply moving, but that's less because of the special power of the individual productions themselves and more because the show itself is just very, very good.
Set in 1905 in Russia, it follows the story of a Jewish milkman named Tevye, his wife, and his five daughters (although only the oldest three are really relevant to the plot). As the world around him changes and his eldest daughters each push for non-traditional independence, he struggles to maintain his cultural and religious traditions. It's a beautiful, moving, often funny story about the difficulty of holding onto faith in the face of resistance, as well as the the question of when it's better to hold onto tradition and when it's best to abandon it.
After that extremely long intro, on to the music! Here are five of my favorite songs from the show. All clips are from the movie version, which is one of my all-time favorite musical movies.
This is actually probably my least favorite of these five, but it so perfectly captures the feel and the theme of the show that I had to include it. In it, Tevye talks directly to the audience. He introduces us to his town, Anatevka, and its most important inhabitants. The song does a great job of portraying this small community held together so tightly through their shared traditions. It may be more monologue than singing, but it's a great show opener.
2. If I Were a Rich Man
This is probably one of the most well-known songs from the show, and it's definitely one of my favorites. It's a fun, upbeat song where Tevye daydreams about what it would be like if he were wealthy, instead of having to work hard all the time for just barely enough to feed his family. The gleeful painting of a world in which he never has to work and where all the men in town flock to him for advice makes me smile.
Like much of this show, its humor and cheerful is intermingled with wistfulness. I especially love the section where he dreams about being able to just sit and study the scriptures all the time. The song slows down and you get the sense that his wish isn't just about the fun of idleness, but that he finds his faith and all related things deeply meaningful, and having the time to pray and study scripture more is really one of the things he wants most.
3. Sabbath Prayer
Partly I had to choose this because this one is never anyone's favorite. This gorgeous little song is set up simply as a prayer they say over their family every Sabbath, and while I think it's one of the most lovely melodies in the entire show, it kind of slides under the radar. My favorite part is the very end, where the family is joined by the entire chorus singing the song as well. It really brings together again the idea of shared culture and shared tradition binding the community together.
4. Sunrise, Sunset
This song was one of my very very favorite showtunes for quite a few years. It takes place during Tevye's eldest daughter's wedding, and while at first listen it seems a bit bleak and dark for such a happy occasion, I absolutely love it. Very few of the songs in this show are all-happy or all-sad. Instead, every happy song has some mourning mixed in, and every sad song has some hope. In this case, as the older generation watches a young girl get married, they think of how quickly time passes and how this young couple will now have to make their way on their own, working together through both the good and the bad times.
And, of course, this song is followed by a great deal of happy celebratory dancing, so the wedding music isn't all sad.
5. Far From the Home I Love
Another sad song with a beautiful, beautiful melody. In this song, Tevye's second daughter is leaving home to join her soon-to-be husband, who has been exiled to Siberia for his political activism. In this song, she tries to explain to her father that she is making this choice freely, that even though she dearly loves her family and hates leaving them behind, her new home is wherever her husband is. While the song's bridge is more positive in tone musically, conveying the idea that she truly loves the idea of spending her life with this man, wherever he is, the song overall is one of saying goodbye, even knowing that she may never have a chance to see her family again. It's sad and beautiful and I love it.
If you are unfamiliar with this show, I highly recommend the movie. It's a very well-done adaptation and well worth the watch.