PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Fiddler on the Roof: A Tale of Two Tevyes

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Fiddler on the Roof: A Tale of Two Tevyes Looking as if he could step in for Harvey Fierstein at a moment's notice, Ron Orbach hit the Minskoff lobby at intermission of Fiddler on the Roof Jan. 20 with a decidedly contented look on his puss. "I feel like the show's back," he said. "It went away for a bit."
From Top: Harvey Fierstein; Joseph Stein; Jerry Bock; Sheldon Harnick; Andrea Martin; Sally Murphy; John Cariani; Nancy Opel; Eli Wallach; Michael Tucker; David Leveaux
From Top: Harvey Fierstein; Joseph Stein; Jerry Bock; Sheldon Harnick; Andrea Martin; Sally Murphy; John Cariani; Nancy Opel; Eli Wallach; Michael Tucker; David Leveaux Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In that feeling, the actor was not alone. A fair share of the "re-opening night audience" wore a similar expression, and their ovation at the end of the revival's 377th performance seconded the pervading notion that the Joseph Stein-Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick classic was now closer to its heart, humor and roots than what British director David Leveaux opened Feb. 26 with Alfred Molina.

The feeling was mutual on the other side of the footlights, too. "You feel the love coming from the audience," Fierstein admitted at the post-play party, held within the Zhivago-red walls of The Firebird, an elegant Russian eatery a few short blocks west of the Minskoff.

"I know it's a cliché, but it was a dream, and it has come true. To have the audience go insane like that—and they've done that from the very first performance—is incredible."

This is Fierstein's fourth Broadway outing, and you might think that you couldn't get here from there. It has been an eccentric evolution for him, to say the least. The first two shows—1983's Tony-winning Torch Song Trilogy and the short-lived Safe Sex—he wrote himself and colored himself gay in both. Then came Hairspray, where he played a woman—a full-figured mom and social firebrand—plausibly enough to win Tony Number Two. And now here he is, playing—if not the father of multitudes at least the father of five marriageable daughters—a milkman eking out a meager existence in the small Russian village of Anatevka on Revolution's eve exactly a century ago. How's that for a stretch!

The challenge, he offered as an explanation, made him do it: "If I were smart, when I came out of Hairspray—you know, on top of the world—I probably should have waited for something good and safe to do, not something that would be completely the other side of the world. I try not to get scared, and that's the hardest thing. It's what keeps me going." In addition to a light touch, he brings an emotional accessibility that audiences appreciate. Case in point: "I had a Russian Jew come up to me on the street after the show. He said his family had come from Anatevka. He was just weeping. He said, 'I've seen other Fiddler on the Roofs, and they always felt kinda like musicals. This felt like my life.'"

Credit for the off-beat casting director Leveaux passes on to Susan Bristow, who produced the show for The Nederlanders. "I was in Japan at the time this came up," he recalled. "Susan called me and said, 'Look, I'm thinking about life beyond Fred [Alfred Molina]. What do you think about Harvey? He has always been in the back of my mind as somebody who ought to play this.' The instant she said it, I thought, 'Yes, that's it. That's exactly where we need to go.' Harvey touches territory that perhaps was last seen in Fiddler when Zero Mostel played it, meaning you got a great clown on that stage. Fred came at it from the other end of the spectrum. The truth is you gotta be able to do both.

"I knew that you can't recast a central role like this with a pale version of the person who was in it before, so the whole idea of Harvey—with his fantastic comedic background and range—somebody who, I felt, would walk onto the stage at the very beginning and be already on the inside track of people who know him and love him—was exciting for me.

"There are those who expect—from Hairspray and Torch Song Trilogy—that Harvey would be one kind of an actor, but the way I thought of him was as a great character actor, which he is. He invites the love of people. He just does. He's one of those performers."

Leveaux admitted that he could probably write the textbook on how to gingerly negotiate two gifted and radically different actors in the same role to achieve much the same effect. "With Harvey," he said, "I was aware that he's somebody who works fast and has an enormous sense of craft in terms of how musical theatre works. Harvey is himself a writer"— [Tony-winning proof is across the street from the Minskoff at the Marriott Marquis: La Cage aux Folles]—"so you get the double advantage of his intelligence as an actor and his intelligence as a writer. We had, I thought, a very inspiring time together, working on this. I also knew, for Harvey, this role of all roles would feel like coming home to him."

Four days ago, Leveaux stopped fine-tuning Fiddler and turned to a different American classic, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, which will bow March 15 at the Barrymore with Sarah Paulson, Josh Lucas, Jessica Lange and Dallas Roberts. The latter two attended the Fiddler festivities, Roberts sporting the latest in pappy pouches (containing 16-week-old Pilot Roberts) and accompanied by Mom (Christine Jones).

Fierstein's indispensable helpmate in lighting the material is Andrea Martin, who brings to wife Golde her immaculate Second City timing and a U.N. face that has served her well in her career, allowing her to pass cultural borders unquestioned from Bulgarian (Candide) to Greek (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) to even red-earth rustic (Oklahoma!) and now Jewish. She was born Armenian, as was the longest-running Tevya, the late Harry Goz.

"It was particularly light tonight because the audience gave us so much," she observed. "It's always give and take, isn't it? I was really aware of the good will in the audience, and, oh my God, did I need it. I have a hard time with stage fright. The first ten minutes, I was really nervous, then I felt all that love, and I said, 'What are you doing, Andrea? Stop it! Enjoy this. Get into the character, and stop worrying if people like you.' And I did."

To do this role meant relinquishing her seat in the clown car director Mike Nichols and Monty Python writer Eric Idle have pointed toward Broadway this season. She and Sara Ramirez were to share Spamalot's distaff duties—Ramirez the songs, Martin the comedy bits—but when Martin passed, these duties were merged. "That was smart of them and great for her." (Indeed, Ramirez may wind up winner in the Featured Actress in a Musical category that Martin won in '93 for My Favorite Year.) "There's room for everybody."

For Martin, it's the work, not (necessarily) the awards. "This is where my heart is, to really go as an actress. I've done sketch for so long, and it wouldn't have stretched me."

Book writer Stein has a lovely way of ducking compliments about the indestructibility of his contribution: "Well, this has been going on a very long time," he said, without his toe actually digging into the thick carpet of The Firebird. (Forty years this year, to be exact.)

"Harvey brings a kind of warmth and a soul that is very unique to this show," Stein said. "And also, the combination of him and Andrea—we're very fortunate because it feels as if they belong together. It's like a fresh show. I loved the original show, but I love this, too."

Composer Bock felt blessed he didn't come up with a "Some Enchanted Evening" for the show. "The whole score somehow received an appreciation without one particular number stepping out from it," he said. As a result, the nonhits—that have been around all this time, but you couldn't see them for the "Sunrise, Sunset" etc.—are lovely surprises.

"You know what's happened? The performances—particularly Harvey's—are so different that you think that there are new lines and new lyrics, and new things have been added, because of his investigation into everything. It sounds new, but it's really the same show."

The most conspicuous person missing from the revival's original cast—beyond Tony nominees Molina and Randy Graff—is their first born, Hodel, now played by Laura Shoop, replacing Laura Michelle Kelly, who flew the coop last summer to become London's Mary Poppins. Yesterday, she got one of the show's nine Olivier nominations.

"It was hard for Laura to leave the show, and it was really hard for us to say goodbye to her because she's a fantastic person," said Melissa Bohen, who soldiers on as sister Chava. (She and her brother, Astaire Award winner Justin Bohen of Oklahoma!, will be this season's Broadway siblings, a la last season's Sutton and Hunter Foster, as soon as he arrives in All Shook Up.) To date, Molina is the only person who has seen Kelly's lofty ascents in London, according to Bohen. "He wrote us the most beautiful e-mail you ever read—how just wonderful she was and how the show was fantastic and how she was sure to be nominated for numerous awards. They had dinner and talked about how much they missed the show and the cast. A lot of us are looking forward to making a trip to see her."

Sally Murphy, who plays Tzeitel, the first Teyve's brood to make it down the aisle, has a stage history of traumatized young maidenhood (Carousel, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wild Party), so it's not surprising that Cossacks show up here on her wedding day. But some professional relief is on the way for the actress: Feb 10-13, she'll star as the Brooklyn mother in the "Encores!" version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Candide's Jason Danieley as her drunken hubby and Noises Off's Katie Finneran as her tartish sis.

John Cariani continues his caffeinated, Tony-nominated performance of Tzeitel's groom, Motel the tailor— a comic portrayal that has grown so much in tics and twitches in a year that it seems to have crossed over into the insect kingdom. Oddly, in the one scene where his character would be nervous, he's not. When asked why this is, Cariani advanced a wonderful one-word answer that heads off any further inquiry: "Grace."

Fully recovered from an unscheduled trip to the basement she took Nov. 16 right after "Sunrise, Sunset" (via a faulty trap door) is the unsinkable Nancy Opel, now sprightly executing her matchmaking duties as Anatevka's primary obstacle to true love, Yente.

"I fell about 12 feet," she said. "It was far enough for you to have time to think about it on your way down. I kept thinking, 'How have I stepped off the lip of the stage? I think I'm going to be hurt.' She wound up with a broken elbow but rebounded puckishly. "It worked out okay. I missed about six weeks, but it turned out much better than I thought it would. A couple of things protected me, one of which was the costume. Anytime you got a big skirt, it sorta slows you down a little bit, and I was wearing a heavily padded hat."

To the role of Hodel's school-teacher suitor, Perchik, Robert Petkoff brought a Young Vic voice and agile footwork—a surprising combo. He pooh-poohed the latter. "I've got no dancing skills at all. The Russians would take the new steps and go, 'We got it.' And me—it would take three weeks of trying to get it before I'd have the steps down right."

The voice was well rehearsed, he allowed. "When I was in college, I had a small Midwestern voice, and I read Richard Burton's biography. He would go out to hills of Wales and do the Shakespearean monologues full-voiced until he'd go hoarse. He did it over and over until he wouldn't go hoarse. After school, I'd go to this outdoor theatre and do the same thing three times a week till I could finally do them without getting hoarse." That training he'll put to use April 10 when he and his wife, a striking redheaded actress named Susan Wands, will have a Romeo and Juliet date at Chicago Shakespeare—but not in the expected roles: He will be Mercutio, and she will do Lady Montague.

Also on the marriage front: Stewart F. Lane and wife Bonnie Comley, who are among the producers of Fiddler, have a dizzyingly dense agenda ahead of them: They're preparing for a Seattle production May 30-June 19 of the David Zippel musical, Princesses, casting it with many of the same people they used at Goodspeed, eying Broadway for the fall. A reading of Lane's In the Wings was directed earlier this week by adobe theatre's Jeremy Dobrish. The couple will also put into production a film titled Brooklyn Rules with Alec Baldwin, Freddie Printz Jr. and Mera Suvari. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, they plan to produce a movie directed by Dori Bernstein. "The working title is Broadway: The Musical," said Lane. "It is a documentary that covers the entire 2003-2004 Broadway season, from Tony Award to Tony Award.

Among the marrieds in the audience were Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, who enjoyed the show tremendously ("She cried every two minutes," testified Wallach) and—where have they been keeping themselves?—Michael Tucker and wife Jill Eickenberry. In San Francisco, that's where—raising a family and doing film/TV work, but they're thinking of relocating to New York and doing a play here together. Agent Jeff Berger is on the case.

The ghost of Jerome Robbins, whose original choreography was reproduced for this production, was much felt in the show's still-breathtaking dance scenes—notably, the wedding sequence where men bound about with a bottle of wine sitting on the hats.

"I have dropped it twice—once during the dance and once at the end," dancer Francis Toumbakaris confessed not at all shame-faced. "Actually, Jerome Robbins wanted for his dancers to drop the bottle so audiences would know that it's real and we're not faking it. Actually, I think we should drop them more often. It's just that we are too careful."