As an art form, musicals are dubious at best. Musicals started out bloated and cliché-ridden in the days of Busby Berkeley, and thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Co. many of today's musicals are even more bloated and cliché-ridden. Like Vegas shows and daytime soaps, most Broadway musicals seem so bad to me that I have never understood how any human being could get any entertainment value out of them --- much less millions of people.
So it has always been amazing to me that a few musicals actually aspired to be clever, serious-minded works of art. And several of them (My Fair Lady, Singin' in the Rain, South Pacific, West Side Story) have been made into classic films as well. In my opinion, Fiddler on the Roof stands at the top, both as a musical and as a film.
The setting is of course Anatevka, an imaginary small town in nineteenth-century Russia which is the temporary home of a small Jewish community. They hope the czar will not notice them, but at the end of the movie, the Russian authorities run them out of town. In the meantime, the action centers around Teyve, an ordinary farmer (Topol) who is trying to marry off his daughters to his friends, but sadly they keep running off with losers and Bolsheviks.
This part of the script is based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, but if you're looking for historical accuracy, you've missed the point. The strength of the script is the universality of its themes --- homelessness and suffering, religious faith and doubt, the struggle to hold on to tradition in times of change. These ideas are explored in the musical in a light-hearted but serious-minded way. And these themes are subtly amplified by Norman Jewison's direction in the film.
All supporting performances are strong, especially Norma Crane as Tevye's wife Golde and Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small as the daughters. The film is slow at times and grim at the end, but so is life.
The musical score is hardly folk music, of course, but it is effective at capturing the sadness of the time and place. All famous musicals, even the really bad ones, have catchy tunes, but the songs in Fiddler on the Roof are not only musically sophisticated (deliberately reusing musical progressions, for instance) but have lyrics that address serious themes. The sentiments in songs like "If I Were a Rich Man" and the rest are simple, but universal, and it's hard not to empathize with Tevye and the others as they sing them. There may be plenty of films that are more fun to rent than Fiddler on the Roof, but how many of them get to the heart of the human experience?