When an injury forced Chaim Topol to leave Fiddler on the Roof midway through his "farewell tour" late last year, the producers turned to Broadway's most recent Tevye and asked if he'd be willing to return to the Fiddler village of Anatevka. Although he was busy writing two new shows and helping to prepare the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, Harvey Fierstein didn't have to think about the offer very long.
"I consider myself the luckiest man in the world, getting to do Fiddler again," he says. "There's nothing quite like playing Tevye. I love the show, and I'd never done the traditional production. I did the David Leveaux production, which was quite beautiful and very forward thinking. But I wanted to see what it was like to do the traditional production, and also get my first taste of the road."
Fierstein succeeded Alfred Molina on Broadway in 2005 and played the role for 13 months. That history with the show proved invaluable: he had just four days of rehearsals before hitting the road in November. (Theodore Bikel plays some weeks on the tour this year, when Fierstein takes time off.)
"When I went into the Broadway production, I had almost four weeks with David," he says. "We took the text apart line by line, and I also read the Sholom Aleichem stories. So I had all of that to fall back on this time. Plus with Fiddler you always have to do the Jerome Robbins choreography. So I basically had a feeling for the choreography, if not the exact staging.
"I came in with very strong ideas of what I was going to do — and then I met a cast that had been doing it in a very different way. There probably aren't two more different performances than mine and Topol's. But the wonderful part of our job is that all of our ideas come together, and this beautiful play happens."
Fierstein's affection for Fiddlerbegan when his mother took him to see the original 1964 production. "I have strong memories of seeing a stage full of Jews," he says. "I didn't think it was possible. Fast forward, and I'm doing the show on Broadway. I come out of the theatre on a Sunday afternoon, and there's a Hasidic family among the people waiting for autographs. And this little Hasidic boy is looking at me with the strangest look on his face. I said, 'Are you okay?' And he said, 'Are you really Jewish?' My heart got ripped out of me. Because that was me. He couldn't believe he had just seen Jews on a Broadway stage — not to mention that some of the actors were actually Jewish."
Although Fiddler is set in a shtetl and informed by Jewish customs — the opening song, "Tradition," reverberates throughout the show — the story about the dissolution of a community and a way of life transcends cultures and nationalities. Joseph Stein, who wrote the book based on Sholom Aleichem's Tevye stories, often tells how the producer of the first Japanese production asked him whether Americans understood the show, "because it's so Japanese."
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