Tradition! John Williams and ‘Fiddler On The Roof’

Soundtrack Producer Mike Matessino presents the 50th Anniversary Remastered Edition of Fiddler On The Roof and discusses the history and the legacy of the beloved film musical and its importance for the career of John Williams

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden

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Soundtrack label La-La Land Records just released a spectacular new limited edition of one of the cornerstones in John Williams’ filmography. Fiddler On The Roof 50th Anniversary Remastered Edition is the most comprehensive and detailed release ever assembled of the soundtrack for the film adaptation of the beloved Tony Award-winning Broadway musical written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, produced by the great Harold Prince and directed for the stage by Jerome Robbins on a play by Joseph Stein. The 1971 film version was directed by Norman Jewison and it features a phenomenal adaptation score by John Williams, who won his very first Academy Award for his work on this film. This new release presents a restored and remastered version of the popular soundtrack album, with alternates and newly-discovered material presented across an expansive 3-CD set.

Original Film Still © 1971 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Fiddler On The Roof is one of the most successful and enduring adaptations of a Broadway musical ever made in Hollywood, sitting alongside such timeless classics as West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1964) as one of the most revered by worldwide audiences. Director Norman Jewison took all the ingredients that made Fiddler a stunning hit on Broadway – its mixture of history and folklore of the Jewish tradition inspired by the tales of Sholem Aleichem, combined with a dazzling musical score full of indelible melodies and lyrics, all packaged with great sensitivity by Jerome Robbins’ masterful direction and choreography – and greatly expanded them to make it perfect for big screen too, turning the stage musical into an ambitious 3-hour film, gorgeously photographed by Oswald Morris and graced by beautiful performances from a group of incredibly talented actors and singers, including Chaim Topol in the starring role of Tevye, which he also performed on the stage version produced in London in the late 1960s (on the original Broadway version, the part was played by the legendary Zero Mostel). Jewison’s inspired direction bring to the fore the cinematic qualities of the piece, which in this adaptation become even more universal and timeless, in no small part helped by John Williams’ luxurious and truly symphonic treatment of Jerry Bock’s original Broadway score.

Chaim Topol in Norman Jewison’s adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) © 1971 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

The project came at a very particular time in John Williams’ career, during which the composer was in the middle of a turning point that, a few years later, would led him into real stardom. Williams came to Fiddler On The Roof after working on two other major adaptation scores, Valley of the Dolls (1967, with songs written by Andre and Dory Previn), and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969, with music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse). Both projects offered the future composer of Jaws and Star Wars an opportunity to flex his muscles as arranger and orchestrator, truly heightening and expanding both song scores (especially in the case of Mr. Chips) into some of the first examples of what would become his trademark orchestral style for the films, i.e. a richly symphonic vernacular that finds its roots in the great European classical tradition, but also firmly and convincingly American at heart, coalescing a wide array of influences and style into a personal voice. Goodbye, Mr. Chips especially was an important project because – as Matessino notes during the conversation – it brought him to the London music scene, which would become an essential part of his life in the following years. Fiddler On The Roof offered Williams the chance to return to London as part of the creative team, as the film’s production was based in the UK’s capital and all the music work (from rehearsals to playbacks and finalized recordings) would also take place there. As the film would bring the early-20th century shtetl setting to life and turn the singing parts into real, believable characters, Williams expanded the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick score into a grand, lavish orchestral score that retains all of its inspired musical qualities – a unique blend between Jewish/klezmer music, Russian-inspired tunes and Tin Pan Alley – while also making it sound bigger and more exciting than ever. Hearing Williams’ treatment and orchestration – penned with his friend and colleague Alexander Courage – of some of the show’s most famous and recognizable songs (“Tradition”, “If I Were A Rich Man”, “Matchmaker”, “Miracle of Miracles”, “Sunrise, Sunset”) is eye-and-ear-opening to understand how crucial was his contribution to the film’s perception as a true, grand musical. In some moments, it almost seems as if Williams is re-writing the original Broadway score. The recording was also graced with some incredible performances by a selected group of the finest London musicians contracted by Sidney Sax, one of the most famous “fixers” in the UK. Asked about his adaptation work during an interview in 1972, Williams deflected any kind of merit upon himself with his typical humbleness:

“I didn’t deviate any more from the original basic schemes of harmony and instrumental coloration than I felt to be absolutely necessary. Of course, I’d have been foolish to ignore the luxuries the film soundtrack offers, but I don’t think I ever blew up the scoring just for the sake of it.”

John Williams

Composer Jerry Bock was also very impressed by Williams’ arrangement of his original score.

“I just thought that the adaptation was so right for the film. It was more expansive, obviously, than the theater piece, as was the arrangement, but the arrangement never forfeited the honesty of the original score, or the orchestration. It just embraced something that only John Williams could do, and just a wonderful, ideal way for the film.”

Jerry Bock
Violinist Isaac Stern and director Norman Jewison during the recording of the soundtrack for Fiddler On The Roof (Photos by David James, used under permission)

Jewison asked Williams who should be the featured violin soloist for the film, and it was the composer’s idea to ask the then-No. 1 violin superstar of the classical world, Isaac Stern, to perform on the soundtrack. The great violinist (who also had Jewish roots) gladly accepted and worked with John Williams both during the playback recordings in 1970 and on the final sessions in 1971. Williams found himself also writing original music, mostly transitional cues based on the thematic material of the songs, but the film’s opening titles gave him the great challenge to write an original cadenza and solo for Isaac Stern. In the film’s main title sequence, inspired by Marc Chagall’s famous painting, we literally see a fiddler playing on the rooftop and Williams composed a 4-minute virtuoso piece matching the fiddler’s movements on screen while cast and crew names appear. The composer rose to the occasion and morphed a challenge that would have scared even the most seasoned musician into a wonderful display of original writing that still lives today—Williams adapted a full-blown 8-minute concert suite featuring the violin cadenza with an extended version of the “Entr’acte” and a reprise of “Tradition”. The suite premiered in 1976 at London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of Williams’ very first appeareance as a conductor in concert for the Filmharmonic series. It has been performed many times since then, extending the score’s life into the concert hall and having some of the world’s top violinists (including Gil Shaham and Itzhak Perlman) performing it live during some of his sold-out concerts across the US.

Williams’ inspired work for the film garnered him the first of his five Academy Award wins, something he always acknowledged as a real honour and a very important stepping stone for his subsequent career as a major film composer in Hollywood.

John Williams wins the Academy Award for Best Adaptation and Original Song Score for “Fiddler On The Roof”

Fiddler On The Roof can also be seen as the beginning of John Williams’ love affair with the violin, which has been at the center of many of his projects both for the films and the concert hall. The most famous is probably the score for Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning Holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993), whose inspired score features touching violin solos performed by Itzhak Perlman, including the now world-famous main theme. Williams saw the violin also as a mean of expression for his music written away from the big screen. It’s the subject of several of his major concert works, including two concertos—the first was written in 1974-76 in memory of his first wife Barbara Ruick and it’s now considered a repertoire piece of the 20th century embraced by several world-renowend soloists; the Violin Concerto No.2 was instead composed between 2020 and 2021 for Anne-Sophie Mutter, who became a real muse for the composer in recent years for her continuing enthusiasm and sheer love for his music. It premiered last July in Tanglewood and was also performed at Boston’s Symphony Hall in October for the opening season concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The cover for Fiddler On The Roof 50th Anniversary Remastered Edition (Artwork by Jim Titus)

La-La Land Records’ lavish release of Fiddler On The Roof soundtrack for the film’s 50th anniversary is a wonderful opportunity to revisit a very important milestone in John Williams’ rich filmography. The 3-CD set presents the beloved original soundtrack album fully restored and remastered by producer Mike Matessino on disc 1, while Disc 2 offers an intriguing program featuring alternate and film versions never heard before (including more material performed by Isaac Stern); Disc 3 presents the “playback” recordings used as on-set guide for the actors and singers, often presenting differences sometimes subtle, other times more substantial from the final versions, and a selection of Williams’ original underscore cues, heard for the first time outside the film itself. Needless to say that the set sounds spectacular thanks to Matessino’s detailed and thorough restoration work, which brings a new life to these wonderful recordings done in London and marvellously captured by engineer Eric Tomlinson at Anvil Film Studios in Denham (the same engineer and venue that six years later would be chosen by Williams to record Star Wars, starting an historic collaboration that would also continue in many of the composer’s recordings in London during the following years). It’s definitely a must-purchase for any serious student and admirer of John Williams’ music. The set also offers spectacular artwork by designer Jim Titus and a 50-page booklet featuring a lengthy essay written by Mike Matessino discussing the history and the legacy of the original musical, chronicling with great detail the film’s production and Williams’ work and the importance of this project in the composer’s musical life.

This is the main focus of our conversation in this special episode of The Legacy of John Williams podcast, in which Mike returns to talk with Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden about Fiddler On The Roof and its place in John Williams’ filmography, while also reflecting on his own personal connection to the film and the original musical and why they’re still relevant to today’s audiences.

Artwork by Jim Titus

Watch the Trailer of Fiddler On The Roof 50th Anniversary Edition, produced by La-La Land Records in collaboration with The Legacy of John Williams:

Thanks to Mike Matessino, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys

Order Fiddler On The Roof 50th Anniversary Remastered Edition on La-La Land Records:

Music Excerpts featured in the podcast © 1971, 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. under exclusive license to Capitol Records LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used under permission