Harvey Fierstein: Back to the Role He Loves

Five years after he played Tevye on Broadway, Harvey Fierstein returns to Fiddler on the Roof for a national tour.

Harvey Fierstein
Harvey Fierstein (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

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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."

Harvey Fierstein in Fiddler on the Roof
photo by Joan Marcus

"I think it's the best-written musical ever," says Fierstein. "Its themes are universal. There's not a person who's untouched by what Tevye goes through with his daughters. It's a show about prejudice, it's a show about bringing up children, it's a show about whether or not to have faith. It's got so much to talk about and it does so beautifully, mostly through comedy. And then there are the serious moments, and suddenly you're laughing and crying at the same time." Despite — or maybe because of — his Tony Award–winning performance as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, Fierstein probably seemed an unlikely choice to play Tevye, who sings all or part of nine songs. Even he was unsure how people would feel about his famous gravelly voice singing "Sunrise, Sunset." "When they came to me, I said I would not consider the role unless Joe Stein, [lyricist] Sheldon Harnick and [composer] Jerry Bock heard me sing the entire score, and approved," he says. "I love those three guys, and I'm grateful for them every day."

Fierstein approaches Tevye with a different mindset than his predecessors. "I play Tevye as much more obviously prejudiced," he says, citing as an example a scene with the non-Jewish Fyedka, who marries his daughter Chava. "He goes to shake hands with me, and after we do, I wipe off my hand. I also play Tevye's relationship with God different than I'd ever seen it played before. The show opens with Tevye and God being best friends. He talks to God as you'd talk to your neighbor. This is not a relationship that needs formal prayer, though formal prayer is in his life. This is a one-on-one relationship with God. By the end of the first act, he's questioning God. When Act II opens, he hasn't spoken to God for two months. By the end of the show, he's not speaking to God anymore. He has to get his things packed up, he has to get his family out of town. He doesn't have time for the luxury of speaking to God. He still stops to pray. He still has that formal relationship with God. But God as his best friend is gone. It's a very interesting thing to play."

Fierstein has now starred in three Broadway musicals (the short-lived A Catered Affair is the third), something he never dreamed of when he began writing and acting in plays. "I never set out to be in theatre," he says. "I have a degree in painting. Being on Broadway never occurred to me. I have so outlived any of my dreams, and my real life is so much better than anything I could dream up, that I don't bother dreaming anymore."