DIVA TALK: 50 Years of Fiddler Memories With Joanna Merlin, Adrienne Barbeau, Alfred Molina, Neva Small, Pia Zadora, Cheryl Stern and More

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Raising the Roof
An all-star benefit concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof, its Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick and the 100th anniversary of The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene will be presented June 9 at 7:30 PM at New York's The Town Hall. Co-conceived and co-directed by Fiddler vets Gary John La Rosa and Erik Liberman, Raising the Roof, which will feature renditions of classic Fiddler numbers by their originators and notable successors, will boast the talents of Topol, who created the role of Tevye on the London stage, reprised his role in the film and returned to Broadway with the role in 1990, as well as Joshua Bell, Frank London, Austin Pendleton, Jackie Hoffman Jerry Zaks, Andrea Martin, Peg Murray, Adrienne Barbeau, Liz Larsen, Louis Zorich, Pia Zadora, Fyvush Finkel, Joanna Merlin, Rosalind Harris, Neva Small, Sammy Dallas Bayes, Robert Berdeen, Duane Bodin, Joanne Borts, Mike Burstyn, Rachel Coloff, Maurice Edwards, Tanya Everett-Bagot, Michael J. Farina, Louis Genevrino, Lori Ada Jaroslow, Sandra Kazan, T. Doyle Leverett, Faye Menken-Schneier, Carolyn Mignini, Joe Ponazecki, Larry Ross, Carol Sawyer, Roberta Senn, Harriet Slaughter, Cheryl Stern, Mimi Turque-Marre and Lori Wilner, with additional guests to be announced.

In anticipation of the one-night-only event, several stars of Fiddler — on Broadway, on film, around the country and around the world — have offered recollections of their time in the musical, which is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem and features a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by the aforementioned Harnick. Enjoy these "Anecdotes from Anatevka." More to come in the next column!

(Also, NYT/Folksbiene has launched a social media campaign, asking readers to share their anecdotes about any production of Fiddler in which they may have appeared as well as a photo from the production. Go to twitter.com/folksbiene or facebook.com/folksbiene to share your own memories.)

 

Joanna Merlin

Joanna Merlin
Original Tzeitel, Fiddler on the Roof, 1964
I auditioned four times for Jerry Robbins' Broadway production of Mother Courage and Her Children in 1963. I didn’t get the role, but Jerry called me into his office in the fall of that year to talk about my auditioning for Fiddler on the Roof. I told him I was not much of a singer. I had only sung on a Broadway stage once and that was to play the lute and sing a Welsh folk song in Anouilh’s Becket with Laurence Olivier. Needless to say, I was more concerned about interacting with my scene partner than the quality of my singing. I told Jerry I did not have a trained voice and had never sung with an orchestra. He assured me that would not be a problem. He wanted me to audition for the role of Hodel - a legitimate soprano! I went to a singing teacher to prepare for the audition and learned some songs in the soprano range. Shockingly, Jerry brought me back six times even though my vocals were hopeless, I felt quite embarrassed every time I auditioned. I knew I sounded terrible, but Jerry was determined to find a way to cast me. He arranged for me to work with Jerry Bock, the composer, and Sheldon on Hodel’s song, “Far From the Home I Love,” which I sang at my seventh audition. It was clear I couldn’t sing it. I knew it, Jerry and Sheldon knew it. Then Jerry Robbins did something unheard of for a Broadway director of his stature. He said he would come to my next voice lesson to hear everything I was singing.

So, on a rainy day in November, we met at the studio of Carmine Gagliardi, my singing teacher, at 71st and Broadway. I sang several songs Carmine and I had worked on. When I finished singing a song from Irma La Douce, which was in an alto range, Jerry looked excited and said, “Sing that song at your next audition!” I was relieved as that range was less painful than my wavery soprano. At my eighth audition, I sang the song and Jerry and Sheldon (Harnick) shot up from their seats in the theatre and one or the other shouted, “She has a chest voice! She can play Tzeitel!”

That moment changed the course of my life. Not only was Fiddler historic, and an honor to be in the original cast, but I got to know Hal Prince, who produced Fiddler. The year after the opening, I had to leave the show because I was four-and-a-half months pregnant. The wardrobe department had reached their limit in letting out my wedding dress. Four years and two children later, Hal called me, out of the blue, and asked me to be his casting director. I cast the replacements for the last two years of the Broadway run of Fiddler. (Odd casting my own part!) Hal was in the middle of casting Company. This was the golden period of Prince-Sondheim musicals, and after completing the casting on Company, I did the original casting on Follies, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and other shows including Evita. After 14 years with Hal, I began casting films for Merchant Ivory as well as for Bernardo Bertolucci’s "The Last Emperor." None of this would have happened if Jerry Robbins had not come to my singing lesson.

 

Adrienne Barbeau

Adrienne Barbeau
Hodel, Fiddler on the Roof (Replacement, Original Broadway Company)
Fiddler on the Roof was my first Broadway show; the first job I had on stage that was going to last longer than a three-month summer-stock run. I signed a one-year contract. At the end of my first week in the show, I took my paycheck and my contract to the accounts department at Bloomingdale’s and applied for my first-ever credit card. They gave it to me. I was a working actress.

 

Alfred Molina and Randy Graff

Alfred Molina
Teyve, Fiddler on the Roof (2004 Broadway Revival)
On the first day of rehearsals for Fiddler, I reminded David Leveaux, our director, that he and I had met decades earlier when I attended a weekend workshop at the London theatre space he was the director of then. It was the Riverside Studios and I was there workshopping with Dario Fo, and a huge number of actors, directors, theatre enthusiasts, etc.

After the workshop had ended, David said to me that he thought it might be a good idea to get me to the Studios for a full production in the near future. I did not hear another word from him until the approach to do Fiddler with him some 20 years later. When I reminded David of his 20-year-old offer, he said, "Well, you see? It wasn't all hot air!"

 

Michael Burstyn

Michael Burstyn
Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof (Pioneer Theatre, Salt Lake City, UT)
My most memorable and unique production of Fiddler was when I starred as Tevye at the Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah. It convinced me that the Mormons think Fiddler was written about them! They identify so much with the Jewish tradition and the experience of the characters in the musical more than most other audiences, since their ancestors went through very much the same experiences.

It just so happens that Fyvush (Finkel) and I share much more than just Tevye and Lazer: We are two of the last surviving original members of the Hebrew Actors Union, the union of the Yiddish actors established in 1900, and the first performing artists union in America, of which I am now the president. My father gave Fyvush his first acting job on Second Avenue, when he was 18 years old. Fyvush attended my Bris (circumcision) in 1945.

 

Lori Ada Jaroslow

Lori Ada Jaroslow
Tzeitel, Fiddler on the Roof (1981 Broadway Revival)
Ensemble, Fiddler on the Roof (1991 Broadway Revival)
When I was 13 years old, I saw my first Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It was extraordinary because my father, Jerry Jarrett, was playing Tevye, not to mention Bette Midler, Tzeitel to Adrienne Barbeau’s Hodel. By then, my beloved aunt, Ruth Jaroslow, was already an illustrious Yente. Ruth is in the Guinness Book of World Records for playing Yente more than any other actress. And if that isn’t synchronistic enough, the second Broadway show I was in was… yup, Fiddler (as Tzeitel at Lincoln Center with Herschel Bernardi in 1981), directed by Jerome Robbins. I went on to do so many companies of the show, I’m not sure where they were and with whom! It was even more profound when ten years later, I found myself holding hands with, on the right, Aunt Ruth and on the left, my Dad, in “Tradition,” in the 1991 revival with Topol. Ruth was Yente, Dad was Avram and I covered and filled in for various Anatevkens.

Cut to 2014. I just completed directing my first production at a middle school in Los Angeles. I called Gary John La Rosa and Jimmy Ferraro, two friends who have directed innumerable productions, every five minutes with questions like, “Does she bring in the bucket before or after she moves the house?” Even while directing a Tevye who has not yet had his Bar Mitzvah, I found myself sobbing while blocking Act 2 - Scene 8 – the packing scene. How lucky I am to be part of this magnificent show and legend.

 

Neva Small

Neva Small
Chava, Fidder on the Roof (1971 film with Topol)
When I was cast as Chava at 17 years old, my parents told me that it would be my calling card forever. This has turned out to be so. Even today, I am delighted to receive emails from fans around the world! I could never have portrayed Sholem Aleichem’s Chava without the guidance of director Norman Jewison and musical director John Williams, among others. Their vision helped me to really personify Sholem Aleichem’s character from the page to the screen.

Once when Norman Jewison was directing me, he put on a babushka and did his own Chava to show me just what he wanted! I have the photo to prove it! And there was the time that Rosalind Harris, Michelle Marsh and I decided in order to stay in character we would not shave our underarms so that “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” could have that authentic special something—and once the camera rolled we heard, "CUT!" Norman Jewison sent us back to our dressing rooms. We then reshot the scene with a more “Hollywood” look.

I will always be indebted to John Williams, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock who trusted me with the voice of Chava. Jerry Bock once told me that he channeled his Yiddish-speaking grandmother when writing the score. The melodies are also in my DNA, and I still love to sing the score.

Travelling to the former Yugoslavia was especially exciting. While on location, my next-door neighbors at the Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb—where we lived for five months—were Molly Picon and Yankel, her husband, who appeared in the film as an extra. Speaking of extras—while filming the scene when Fydeka exchanged a book with Chava—the extras were told to harass Chava while we filmed the scene. The young boys took the direction to heart and threw every Serbo-Croatian swear word at us. When the interpreter watched the dailies, she understood them and realized that the film would never get its G rating without dubbing! Let’s all celebrate the lasting legacy of this masterpiece!

 

Pia Zadora

Pia Zadora
Bielke, Fiddler on the Roof (Replacement, Original Broadway Company)
In the scene where Tevye introduces his daughters to Motel, "This is mine, this is mine, etc.," and when it came to me-because I was the only non-Jewish daughter, he called me his shiksa, he would look at me and pause and say, "And this is mine?"

 

Rosalind Harris

Rosalind Harris
Tzeitel, Fiddler on the Roof (Replacement, Original Broadway Company)
Tzeitel, Fiddler on the Roof (1971 film with Topol)
You might enjoy knowing that, in an ironic turn of events, I was on Broadway, understudying Bette Midler as Tzeitel, when she missed a performance….Hal Prince hadn't seen the show in a while, and had brought his son to see the show, and saw me portray Tzeitel.

He came backstage and thrilled me when he not only thanked me for my performance, but actually, right then and there, told me he would like me to take over the role, should Bette ever leave (in those years, the "understudy" never took over a lead role), which she did shortly after. In between that performance and Bette leaving, the United Artists film team came to town. Bette had auditioned for Tzeitel, though, they felt she was not exactly the Tzeitel they were looking for, and it was she who encouraged me to go down to the casting studio, without a scheduled audition, and be seen for the role. The rest, as they say, is history, for I was cast in the film, while still in the chorus on Broadway, and understudying Bette!!! Quite a miraculous turn of events!

While preparing to film the song "Matchmaker" in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, Neva, Michele and I had decided that to be "authentic" young girls of the period, we should let "all our hair grow out," as in Europe, women did not "shave." On the day of filming, we did a "run through," and, as all three daughters fell backwards onto the bed, to Norman Jewison's horror, he saw that we all had a huge amount of hair under our arms. He yelled out to the crew, "Stop the cameras!!"…..then, turned to us and said in a stern voice: "Girls…… go back to your hotel, right now, and ……SHAVE YOUR PITS!!!"

 

Rebecca Hoodwin

Rebecca Hoodwin
Golde, Fiddler on the Roof (1995 National Tour with Theodore Bikel)
Yente, Fiddler on the Roof (2009 National Tour with Harvey Fierstein)
In my first Fiddler on the Roof, I played Fruma Sarah, moved onto Shandel, and finally landed the role of Golde, at the tender age of 23. My Tzeitel was 24! It was then that I had to make peace with the fact that I would never play Hodel. And I am ever grateful for the many motherly journeys.

Sitting on stage warming up in one of the many cities on a Fiddler on the Roof tour with Mr. [Theodore ] Bikel, I remembered how I had always wished for five children, a cabin in the woods and a fantastic climbing tree. I was looking at the wooden house with the tree leaves coming up out of the roof and thought, “I should have been more specific.” Then, I happily rose and prepared to begin another journey with my five current daughters in preparation for yet another Sabbath. I am ever grateful for my many children from Anatevka.

 

Cheryl Stern

Cheryl Stern
Fruma Sarah, Fiddler on the Roof (1984 National Tour)
Chava, Fiddler on the Roof (1986, Pittsburg CLO)
Yente, Fiddler on the Roof (2014 Goodspeed Opera House)
1968: Debut performance when I stepped in for an ailing Tevye in the Buffalo Jewish Center Jr. production. 1972: Third babushka from the left in the Amherst Central High School production.

1984: Debut professional performance as Frumah Sarah in national tour starring Herschel Bernardi and Thelma Lee. Directed by Jay Harnick.

1986: Chava at Pittsburgh CLO starring Nehemiah Persoff with Judy Blazer, Randy Graff, Patrick Quinn, Bob Walton, Ruth Jaraslow and Thelma Lee once again. Directed by Susan Schulman.

2014: Yente at the Goodspeed Opera House starring Adam Heller and Lori Wilner. Directed by Rob Ruggiero.

I have a long-standing and special relationship with Sheldon Harnick. As a graduate of Northwestern University, I was always a huge admirer of this celebrated fellow alum!! My first show in NYC was Up in Central Park at Equity Library Theatre. To my surprise and utter joy, Sheldon came back stage after the show one night to introduce himself to me. He told me he was a big fan!! It meant the world to me, and he has continued to support me through the years as an artist. Last season I had the supreme pleasure of playing Mrs. Pomerantz in the Encores! revival of Fiorello! Sheldon and Fiddler are very near and dear to my heart, and I am beyond honored to be asked to participate in this landmark event!!!!

[The Town Hall is located at 123 West 43rd Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue. Tickets start at $75. Contact (212) 213-2120, ext. 203 or visit nationalyiddishtheatre.org.]

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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.