‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’ director Max Lewkowicz discusses universal appeal, longevity of musical story

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According to director Max Lewkowicz’s new documentary, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” the titular musical has been performed every day “somewhere around the world” since its debut in 1964. As the film reveals, even with different casts, staging in different countries and singing in different languages, there’s a tapestry of common threads throughout “Fiddler on the Roof” that allows the show to reach across any perceived boundaries.

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” which screened July 18 as the opening-night film for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, combines a look at the musical’s history with testimonials from living members of the theater world for a dual exploration of how “Fiddler” came to be — and why it’s lasted so long in our collective theatrical memory.

Weaving together interviews, archival footage of the development process and clips from a range of productions, Lewkowicz has created a documentary that testifies to the musical’s universality. Though the “Fiddler” book presents a very specific story — following one man, Tevye, and his family — its themes transcend time and place. This much is evidenced by the musical’s lasting place both in theater canon and the ubiquity of its songs, from the exultory “Tradition” to the escalating, aspirational “If I Were a Rich Man.”

“(Tevye) is an Orthodox Jewish man in Eastern Europe in an insular society … (but) ‘How do you struggle with conflict and love?’ — everybody understands that,” Lewkowicz said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I think everybody relates to the human aspect of it.”

Lewkowicz attributes the widespread appeal of “Fiddler” to its meditations on the human condition, reflecting conflicts and struggles that are relatable to all. Citing its appeal as more than simply a religious or social connection, he described having seen the play and internalized its messages at a young age. “Fiddler,” he said, is part of his “background and soul.”

“As a young boy, it moved me. … It was my story, but I think (it is) everyone’s story,” Lewkowicz said. And though “Fiddler” doesn’t explicitly address the Holocaust, the pogrom that occurs in the “Fiddler” village of Anatevka also resonated with the director, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. “I had heard all the stories from my mother about what it was like, and I realized that (‘Fiddler’) is telling this universal story,” Lewkowicz said.

In the early stages of creating the framework for the documentary, Lewkowicz said he attended a presentation organized by Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist and songwriter of the “Fiddler” book. In an initial discussion between Lewkowicz and the lyricist, Harnick revealed how difficult it was to get the musical made. At this point, Lewkowicz decided he was interested in interviewing Harnick, setting off what would become the documentary — showcasing both the story of how the musical was created and the ways it has impacted people since its debut decades ago.

“I began to realize that this was an amazing story that plays on so many different levels. Besides the wonderful music and choreography and costumes, it tells stuff that is happening,” Lewkowicz said.

The documentary discusses how “Fiddler” was radical in addressing themes such as women’s rights, gender roles and anti-Semitism — themes that don’t often appear in a musical, let alone other forms of media. Lewkowicz also noted the ties between the past depicted by the musical, with its portrayal of a refugee community and the violence accompanying the forced removal of Tevye and his community, and the present day.

Coming from a background in documentary work, Lewkowicz had experience zeroing in on historical subjects even prior to “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.” In 2016, he directed “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro,” which details the work of a World War II infantryman who captured the war through his camera lens. Lewkowicz said he drew comparisons between Harnick and Vaccaro while working on his more recent film, particularly with regards to their common goal of telling stories about the human condition. He noted his sense of responsibility as a documentarian to pull back the curtains and tell stories about these storytellers themselves.

As a testament to the continued success and resonance of “Fiddler,” 2019 has already seen a revival of the musical at London’s West End, which will enjoy a run through September — in addition to the countless local productions of the musical currently taking place across the world. For those watching, Lewkowicz said he hopes people take from his documentary a view of “Fiddler” in all its glory, absorbing its central messages about the human condition and human resilience.

“I enjoy art that transcends everything,” Lewkowicz noted. “I’d like them to experience the joy of a work of art which stays for a long time.”

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].