Te Marc Chagall retrospective currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art includes some of the artist’s most arresting pieces, from the flying lovers in “Above the Town” to the “White Crucifixion” (Jesus is wearing a tallis!) to Moses leading his people in “The Crossing of the Red Sea.” And yet the most commanding image is still the one we know the best: the fiddler on the roof originally created for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1920 and called, simply, “Music.”
Most Broadway lovers know that this image, by far Chagall’s most popular and well-known creation, was the source of the title for the 1964 stage musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on the Tevye stories of Sholom Aleichem. But, oddly, that connection has been lost since the release of the 1971 film version (with its more realistic and less colorful depiction of the town of Anatevka). In fact, some current Chagall experts, including Howard Greenfeld, explicitly deny any relation between the musical and Chagall’s painting, while certain Sholom Aleichem experts, such as Hillel Halkin, remain adamant that the writer never mentioned any fiddlers on any roofs. Chagall’s imagery, they assert, had nothing to do with Sholom Aleichem’s words.
They are wrong.