Fiddler on the Roof: How to Stay on Top When You Debate the Story Issues

Tevye, the milkman, ponders whether a traditional marriage is really traditional.

MOTIVATIONS AT THE MIDPOINT: Turning Characters, Themes and Audiences.

For the month of June, we’ll be focusing on the story arc as it relates to character motivations. To help with that, we’ll be analyzing several classic musicals.

So far in our view of movie musical monologues (aka solo numbers) we’ve looked at how motivations are tested: are the values, beliefs, arguments, and conclusions involved in a character’s motivations true or not? If they are true, then there’s a good chance the character is in line with what the story is trying to prove. Such was the case withOliver! when Oliver Twist’s journey was able to demonstrate that his question “Where is Love?” was not asked in vain.

Then we took a look at how character motivations adapt and change in response to those tests. In our example, Singin’ in the Rain, the character values, beliefs, arguments, and conclusions were on-point thematically, so the argument was more about how to solve the problems that drove their motivations. This re-direction of character actions also gave proof for the story’s argument, but was related more to the means and methods of the issue rather than the underlying truths of an issue. We saw this when Don Lockwood was finally able to come out into the spotlight with his true ambitions, despite it being dark and rainy outside at the time.

Taking the exploration of motivations at the midpoint a step further, let’s look at what happens when the truth of a character’s very values are challenged. This is basically the premise of the musical, Fiddler on the Roof (1971)—the story of a  a poor Jewish milkman, Tevye, raising his daughters in the social upheaval of the final years of Tsarist Russia.

Tevye’s core value can be described in one word (and one musical number): “Tradition!”  To him, it’s the key to keeping order in family, work, and community. Without it, everyone is in as precarious a position as a “fiddler on the roof.” The main challenge to this value is his daughters—or really the men that they want to marry.  None of them follow the traditional rules of marital matchmaking. So as each one finds true love, Tevye is increasingly asked to re-evaluate if his traditions are more important than his daughters’ happiness.

“Tevye’s Monologue” a short song that’s mainly a monologue.

And that’s where we find one of the musical world’s shortest solo numbers, “Tevye’s Monologue,” where Tevye sings a few lyrics and then proceeds to verbally process aloud with God whether or not he should approve of his daughter’s union. As he lists all the pros and cons, he says, “on the other hand…” For he is not only exploring the issue as it presents in his life, but also the bigger issues of love and marriage for the audience. In the end, Tevye uses this approach to come to the conclusion that change is possible given the individual needs of his daughters, yet there is also a time when one must draw the line and say, “there is no other hand!”—specifically when his daughter Chava gets married to a non-Jew. Pretty hard decision, but one that he had to make in order not to break completely with all that he valued.

This re-evaluation is what storytellers also face. To walk in Tevye’s shoes as they speak into the culture of their time. They must also ask, “where is the line that should be drawn…or is there a line that should be drawn at all?”  So a good story should always take a page from our poor milkman, and look at the issue “on one hand…”and“on the other hand.”

Because going through the difficult process of being double-minded will ironically create a single-mindedness in the end that can stand up for a Bigger Truth—even while fiddling on the roof. 


Below is a checklist of questions to ask in regard to your character motivations as they arc through the. story. The more you address each question, the better your character and story truths are tested.

For this session, focus on how your character is either proactively re-evaluating the various factors on the list, or how other characters are challenging them to re-evaluate them. The most important idea to incorporate in your performances is that this is a difficult process! If you make it too easy for your characters, then you actually rob the audience of experiencing the process through your character’s perspective. And if the audience cannot engage in the process, they will ask themselves why they are watching and tune out. So give them something to evaluate and re-evaluate—and then intentionally play the beats of that turning!


What does your character want? (This is the motivation they act upon.) 
What’s stopping them? (This is what tests their motivation.)
What are they willing to do to overcome the obstacle? (This is how their deeper motivation is re-evaluated, revised, redirected or revealed.) 
What is their outcome in the story? (This is the resolution of their motivation, and the proof for the story argument.) 
What truth is the story trying to prove? (This is the thematic argument behind their struggle—the Bigger Truth) 


What’s the problem your character is trying to solve? What problem is the story trying to explore? 
What is your character trying to prove? How does it match or contradict what the story is trying to prove 
What urges and impulses are driving their decisions and actions? How are those being tested? 
What is their core value that is driving their decisions and actions? How is that value being tested? 
What beliefs and opinions does your character hold that are driving their decisions and actions? How are those beliefs/opinions being tested? 
What emotions are driving their decisions and actions? How are those feelings and emotions being tested? 
What are your character’s dream (vision) of an ideal life? What’s the story solution that is being tested? 
What’s your character’s goal/plan? How is its success/failure affecting their motivations? 
What risks are they willing to take to change their situation?
What change does your character need to grow? How is that re-directing or revising their motivations? 

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