When Steven Skybell was a young boy in Lubbock, Texas, his synagogue rented out a local movie theatre to screen Fiddler on the Roof (chopped liver served in lieu of popcorn—seriously). “Fiddler for a Jewish boy who had an interest in the theatre was so important in ways that you even forget,” he says. And, apparently, in ways that one cannot predict. Little did Skybell know that would kickstart a lifelong link to the story of Tevye.
Skybell played one of the young boys in a local production at the age of 11; at 17, he played Tevye for the first time at Interlochen Music Camp; at 21 he played Tevye again during his undergrad at Yale.
After a decades-long Fiddler drought, though with six other Broadway shows and numerous other stage credits to his name, Skybell was cast in the 2015 Broadway revival production, but as a replacement for Lazar Wolf.
“My whole adult life I had been looking for opportunities to take on Tevye at least one more time, closer to the appropriate age,” Skybell confesses. Tevye has been an unshakable force, “something that’s just rumbled around in me for what feels like my entire life.”
So when Off-Broadway’s National Yiddish Theatre of Folskbiene announced their Yiddish-language production of the musical theatre classic directed by Joel Grey, Skybell “jokingly said to myself, ‘Just my luck. I’m playing Tevye in Yiddish.’” As it turns out, Yiddish has been the driving force behind “the most amazing experience” and distinguishes this Fiddler on the Roof as a seminal production—imbued with more meaning, context, and authenticity than ever before.
Skybell grew up listening to his grandparents, a Polish immigrant and the daughter of an Oklahoma rabbi, speak Yiddish whenever they didn’t want the kids to understand. “While I had the sound in my ear, I had no idea what they were saying,” says Skybell. But he felt a pull towards his ancestral language. In his early 30s, he and his brother decided to learn Yiddish on their own; they bought Yiddish grammar books and taught themselves over long phone calls of stilted sentences and practiced syllables. In 2006, while living in Chicago to play Dr. Dillamond in the sit-down production of Wicked, Skybell sought private lessons with a Northwestern professor. “That gave me the chutzpah to tell the National Yiddish Theatre, when I was asking to be seen for Tevye, to please tell them, one: I’ve worked with Joel Grey, and two: I speak Yiddish.”
After rounds of auditions, Skybell got the call. He would finally be Tevye.
Though Skybell originally bemoaned that his true stab at the role wouldn’t be in Broadway’s English, the authentic Yiddish text has been a roadmap to the character.
“It definitely feels fantastic to speak it in the language that people would speak it in,” says Skybell. “It’s visceral.”
“The thing about Yiddish is that it’s earthy … but it also reaches up to G-d. I love how it’s posed between those two flames,” says Skybell. “What is so beautiful about getting to be Tevye in Yiddish is, because he is just a dairyman and can barely make ends meet and he also talks to God, flipping between those two things seems so beautifully facilitated by Yiddish.”
As the language straddles groundedness and divinity, Skybell, too, poses between flames. He stands in the complexity of Tevye, one foot planted in his stubbornness and temper, the other in his gentleness and compassion; he is as quick to anger as he is to melt for his daughters.
For character and for language, Skybell clutches to the text of the play as fervently as Tevye to his own “good book.” “Steven worked constantly. There wasn’t a moment in the four weeks [of rehearsal] that you wouldn’t see him off on the side drilling it into his head,” says Mlotek. “He still does.”
It shows. His freedom with the language allows spontaneity and realism in his performance. When Skybell speaks, you feel as though you understand every word, even if you don’t speak Yiddish—the way in which the most expert of Shakespearean players deliver iambic pentameter as if it were as sensible as modern English.
That naturalism also speaks to Skybell’s lifelong mulling over the role. “In the way you would approach Hamlet, which is to say you can be thinking about Hamlet your entire life, and then you finally get to play him and all that cognition, all those previous explorations are only going to deepen your interpretation,” he says.
Skybell now abandons the thinking; he’s not contemplating Tevye, he just is. “I’m just trying to achieve the task at hand,” Skybell urges. Skybell returns to the emotional essence of the simply dairyman, a father in a household of women, a pious man, offering a refreshingly different Tevye than ever before—one with less bombast, which locks step with Grey’s stripped down re-envisioning in this production.
Skybell calls his director’s vision for Fiddler “arresting in its simplicity.” The same could be said for Skybell’s performance.
“The Tevye I found—or what I found it on—is on the shoulders of Joel Grey. He was just so incredible about fine-tuning moments,” Skybell continues.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Skybell’s performance of “Ven Ikh Bin A Rotshild” (“If I Were a Rich Man”). “Joel has been very helpful and directive about trying to let ‘Rich Man’ not be a Zero Mostel showstopper,” says Skybell. Instead, he approaches the song as a wistful daydream. “It wants to be more gentle than, perhaps, we sometimes imagine.” To Skybell, Tevye plays in his own imagination more than he begrudges the circumstances of his life. Grey often nudged Skybell away from a kvetching Tevye to one of positivity and humor in his interactions.
“[Joel] or I never sat down and said, ‘This is the Tevye we want to build,’ but building this moment and this moment, not really worrying about the total package.”
Playing so presently, Skybell discovers new layers each night and cumulatively as the production continues its run (which has been extended four times). “Tevye has that endless well of expression,” the actor marvels. “I don’t think one could ever get tired of the journey he goes on in this play.” Seems like it was worth the wait.
National Yiddish Theatre of Folksbiene’s production of Fiddler on the Roof plays through December 30. Click here for more information.