From the moment he heard that Fiddler on the Roof was being revived on Broadway, Harvey Fierstein coveted the role of Tevye the Dairyman. "It's the greatest role for a character actor in musical comedy," Fierstein says in his trademark frog-in-the-throat voice.
But Alfred Molina got the part, as well as a 2004 Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Now, however, Molina has departed — and it's Fierstein who's onstage at the Minskoff Theatre, starring in the beloved musical adaptation of Sholom Aleichem's tales of Jewish village life in the early 1900's in pogrom-plagued Russia.
"As soon as I heard they were doing it, on that very first day, I spoke to Susan Bristow and Nick Scandalios" of the Nederlander Organization, which produced the revival, Fierstein recalls. "I said, 'You know who should star?' And Susan said, 'Who?' And I said, 'Me.' And she goes, 'Yeah, right.' So I said, 'You'll eat those words.' Fast forward a year or so. The telephone rang. It was Susan. And she said, 'All right, I'm ready to eat my words.'"
One reason he thinks he got the job is that director David Leveaux "wanted somebody completely different from Alfred Molina. And I'm about as different from Alfred as you can get." The legendary Zero Mostel was the original Tevye in the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein-Jerome Robbins musical, which opened in September 1964, won nine Tony Awards and ran for 3,242 performances. Fierstein has four Tony Awards of his own — as playwright and actor in Torch Song Trilogy (1983); as librettist for 1984's La Cage aux Folles (whose revival is at the Marquis Theatre, just across from Fiddler); and, in 2003, as Best Actor in a Musical for his turn as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.
So why is Tevye the greatest role? "In most musical comedies, there's no time for character development," Fierstein says. "Who the person is when the curtain goes up is who they are at the end. They may have learned lessons, but real changes to the core don't happen. And this character does have those changes to the core.
"The role uses all the vocabulary of an actor. Tevye has these monologues with God. And he talks directly to the audience. And he talks to other characters. You need to have those three focuses. You need to be able to do funny scenes and dramatic scenes. And then you have to sing." Tevye, he says, "starts the show absolutely and utterly sure who he is. He knows why he was born, he has his place in the community, he has his wife and children, he knows what's going to happen to them, how everything is going to run, he knows where his business is, what business he's in, and he knows that God is watching over him and taking care of everything. As long as he's a righteous person and a good person, God will take care of him, and God is all-powerful, and if something happens it's because God wants it to happen." But during the show, Fierstein says, "Tevye starts questioning himself. He knows God is still there, he still believes in God, but he's not so sure God is watching over and taking care of everything. He starts questioning whether God is all-powerful. Maybe God's just watching."
And by the end "it doesn't matter whether God is here or whether there is no God, whether God cares or doesn't care, whether He's all-powerful or not. They've got to pack up their stuff and get out, and that's the reality of life, questions of faith aside. Sometimes the reality's harsher than faith, and faith can't override it, no matter how much you believe in God. They've just been thrown out of their homes, they're about to lose their country, and they're going off to America. He's lost two of his daughters, and he may never see them again."
Fierstein says that because of his childhood in Brooklyn in the 1950's and 60's, the role speaks to him. "I grew up with that kind of faith," he says. "The Yeshiva of Bensonhurst was on one corner and the Jewish community house on the other. I grew up with women in my basement rolling bandages for cancer care who had numbers tattooed on their arms."
They would tell him stories of the Holocaust, and he would question himself — how could God allow that to happen, "how can you believe there's a God that looks after His people?"
In addition, there are his family experiences — "what I went through watching my parents deal with my being gay and coming out," he says. "There's an interesting parallel to marrying out of the faith," as one of Tevye's daughters does. "And my brother did indeed not marry a Jewish girl."
The role has been played by many superb actors, making it an even more special challenge. "But I always see a role as a challenge," Fierstein says. "This is a really scary part. It's a great part, and I have a lot of respect for it — which I'll have to get rid of right away, because you can't play somebody you respect. You have to play somebody you can identify with, which is very different. You have to find that identity."
Fierstein saw the original production — with Mostel as Tevye — when he was ten. "I can't wait to dig my teeth in and find out what's there that Zero knew."