"If someone had asked me to name the five musical roles I would like to play, Tevye wouldn't have been on the list," Molina says. "It wasn't that I didn't like the show or the role — I love them both. But part of me may have thought it might be a little bit beyond my reach. It took a conversation with two actor friends. They told me I'd reached the age where it can be very easy to slip into something safe and comfortable — so now's the time to make a choice that scares me."
So the tall and burly 50-year-old London native, a Tony nominee and Drama Desk Award winner as Best Actor in 1998 for Art, is onstage at the Minskoff Theatre in a new production of Fiddler, the beloved adaptation of Sholom Aleichem's tales of Jewish village life in pogrom-plagued Russia in the early 1900's.
"We're trying to avoid the word revival," Molina says in a relaxed English accent that betrays neither fear nor trembling. "The word conjures up resuscitating something that's dead. Fiddler is very much alive. We think of this as a rediscovery of a wonderful work that stands up to any modern test in the quality of its music and lyrics and the strength of its book." Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway on Sept. 22, 1964, with the legendary Zero Mostel as Tevye the Dairyman. The New York Times called the show an "achievement of uncommon quality" that "catches the essence of a moment in history with sentiment and radiance." With a book by Joseph Stein and direction by Jerome Robbins, Fiddler won nine Tony Awards, including Best Actor for Mostel and Best Musical, and ran for 3,242 performances. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's beloved score included such classics as "Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man" and "To Life" — songs that to this day, for countless audiences, are laden with happiness and tears.
The 2004 Fiddler features Randy Graff (City of Angels) as Tevye's wife, Golde, and Barbara Barrie (Company) as Yente the Matchmaker. The director is David Leveaux, whose credits include last season's Tony-winning revival of Nine, and Jerome Robbins's original choreography is being re-created.
In Fiddler, Tevye grapples with a changing world, where modern values challenge the long "Tradition" of his village's daily life. His three eldest daughters shun the custom of arranged marriages and wed for love — to a humble tailor, a dissident student and, ultimately and most egregiously for Tevye, a non-Jew.
"It's really a universal story," Molina says. "It's not just Jewish peasants in Anatevka in 1905. It's about love, and family, and inevitable change — about being separated from what you know and having to embrace what you don't know. The musical has so much resonance in America, because so many people trace their ancestry to immigrants who fled some kind of oppression."
But Tevye, he says, "is not a victim. He has conversations with God, and they are real discussions. He's not complaining about how hard things are. He challenges God. That suggests a very active spirit, with energy and virility, a man young enough to reaffirm the emotional and passionate side of life with his wife. When Tevye's horse goes lame he can still pull his cart. And he gets angry. He can almost pick a fight with the Russians. The Hasidic celebration of God — through dance, through music, through family — suggests people very much in touch with feelings, with passions. They weren't walking around shrugging their shoulders, going, 'Oy, a terrible life.' They were grabbing life by the throat and making the best of it."
Molina grew up in London, the son of a Spanish-born waiter and an Italian-born housekeeper, and began grabbing life by the throat at an early age. "Family history says that from age nine I wanted to be an actor. I was in a school play, and I remember the feeling I got when I made people laugh."
He went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and garnered an Olivier nomination in 1980 in London as Jud Fry in Oklahoma! His many film credits include "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Frida," "Prick Up Your Ears," "Chocolat" and "Enchanted April." This summer he will appear as Dr. Octopus, Tobey Maguire's archenemy, in "Spider-Man 2." "I've got Spider-Man yarmulkes for Fiddler's writers," he says. "That's their present on opening night."
Molina hopes audiences will feel "the excitement, the joy, of discovering Fiddler the way everyone did in 1964. We want a new generation to have that experience. And we want people who saw the show in 1964 to leave the theatre and say, 'I had forgotten how good this show is.'"