The plot of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is set in the small Jewish village of Anatevka, Russia in 1905 and is concerned primarily with the efforts of Tevye, a dairyman, and his wife Golde, and their five daughters to cope with their harsh existence under Tsarist rule.
During the opening song of Act I (Tradition), Tevye, the dairyman explains the role of God's law in providing balance in the villagers' lives. He describes the inner circle of the community and the larger circle which includes the constable, the priest, and countless other authority figures. However he explains, "We don't bother them and so far, they don't bother us." He ends by insisting that without their traditions, he and the other villagers would find their lives "as shaky as a FIDDLER ON THE ROOF"
Scene 1 Tevye's daughters wonder if the matchmaker will ever find them the men of their dreams (Matchmaker). The matchmaker, Yente, tells Golde that she has selected the butcher Lazar Wolf as a match for Tzeitel.
Scene 2 Tevye reflects on how much he wishes he had a small fortune. (If I Were a Rich Man). A group of villagers, including an outsider, Perchik, approach him with news of a violent pogrom in a nearby village. Tevye invites Perchik a young revolutionary student, to come to his home for Sabbath dinner and arranges for him to instruct his daughters.
Scene 3Motel, the tailor attempts to ask Tevye for Tzeitel's hand, but gets tongue-tied. The family and their guests welcome the Sabbath. (Sabbath Prayer)
Scene 4Tevye goes to the Inn to meet Lazar Wolf, the butcher, and agrees to the match with Tzeitel. A boisterous celebration involving the villagers and the Russians, who also congregate in the bar, results. (L'Chaim).
Scene 5As Tevye, with some revellers, staggers home, he meets the Constable, who warns him that a demonstration is going to be planned against the Jews of Anatevka.
Scene 6Tevye eventually appears from his stupor and tells Tzeitel about her engagement to Lazar Wolf. Golde rejoices, but after she leaves, Motel tells Tevye that he and Tzeitel gave each other a pledge to marry. After a struggle with himself, Tevye agrees to their marriage. He leaves and Motel and Tzeitel rejoice. (Miracle of Miracles).
Scene 7Tevye decides to manufacture a wild nightmare (The Dream) to convince Golde that the match with Lazar will result in Tzeitel's death at the hands of the butcher's first wife, Fruma-Sarah. Golde is so horrified that she insists on a marriage between Tzeitel and Motel.
Scene 8The villagers are gossiping in the street about the mix-up in Tzeitel's wedding plans. As Chava enters Motel's tailor shop a group of Russians on the street taunt Her. Fyedka insists that they stop. After they leave, Fyedka follows Chava into the shop. He tires to speak with her, but leaves quickly when Motel enters. Motel places his wedding hat on his head.
Scene 9The musicians lead us into the wedding. The company sings (Sunrise, Sunset) as the traditional Jewish ceremony takes place. To the villagers’ dismay, Perchik asks Hodel to dance with him and she accepts, performing the forbidden act of dancing with a man. Everyone else follows suit. As the dance reaches a wild high point, the Constable and his men enter. They start to destroy everything in sight. Perchik grapples with a Russian and is knocked to the floor. The constable bows to Tevye and says, " I am genuinely sorry. You understand?" Tevye replies with mock courtesy, "Of course." Chava and Fyedka have eyes only for each other.
During the Prologue, Tevye chats with God about recent events.
Scene IPerchik tells Hodel that he is leaving to work for justice in Kiev. He proposes to her and she accepts. (Now I Have Everything) He promises to send for her as soon as he can. Tevye approves in spite of his misgivings. After they leave, he asks Golde if she thinks their own arranged marriage has somehow also turned into a romance (Do You Love Me?)
Scene 2In a village street, Yente tells Tzeitel she has seen Chava with Fyedka. The news becomes gossip for the villagers who turn it into a song that totally distorts the truth. (Rumour)
Scene 3Tevye takes Hodel to the railroad station. She is going to Siberia where Perchik has been sent after his arrest. (Far From The Home I Love).
Scene 4The villagers are gossiping once again about a new arrival at Motel and Tzeitel's.
Scene 5At Motel's shop, we learn that the new arrival is a sewing machine. Fyedka and Chava speak outside the shop. She promises to speak to Tevye about their love for each other. Tevye appears and Chava tries to talk to him about Fyedka. Tevye refuses to listen to her and forbids her ever to speak to him about Fyedka again.
Scene 6Tevye returns home to learn from Golde that the priest has married Chava and Fyedka. Tevye says that Chava is dead to them. He sings of his love for Chava. (Little Bird) When Chava appears to ask his acceptance, he cannot allow himself to answer her plea. Chava exits as unseen voices chorus. (Tradition).
Scene 7Yente is trying to fix up Tevye's remaining daughters with two boys as future husbands. Villagers enter anxious about rumours they have heard. The Constable brings the news that everyone in the town has to sell their houses and household-goods and leave Anatevka in three days. As the villagers think of their future, they sing fondly of the village they are leaving. (Anatevka).
Scene 8Tevye’s family is packing their wagon to leave. Tzeitel and Motel are staying in Warsaw until they have enough money to go to America. Hodel and Perchik are still in Siberia. Chava appears with Fyedka. Tevye still refuses to acknowledge her. Fyedka explains that they are also leaving because they cannot stay among people who can do such things to others. They are going to Cracow. Tzeitel says goodbye to them and Tevye prompts Tzeitel to add, "God be with you!" Chava promises Golde that she will write to her in America. Chava and Fyedka leave. Final goodbyes are said and Tevye begins pulling the wagon. The Fiddler appears. Tevye beckons to the Fiddler to follow him. The Fiddler follows Tevye upstage as the curtain falls.