Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 2001
You could call it the spirit of 76. Actor/singer/director septuagenarian Theodore Bikel is still on the road, in a 37-week national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, with no intention of slowing down any time soon. In fact, this production is slated for a Broadway opening some time after the summer. To date, Bikel has logged in 1600 performances of the Russian dairyman, Tevye.
“The numbers become meaningless, in a sense,” he said by phone from the road. “If you’re doing a lousy play, twice is too many. If you’re doing a superb play, 1600 is nothing. This is a superb play and a superb role, and I do it well. ”
Bikel, a native of Vienna who grew up in Israel, started playing Tevye 30 years ago, and he’s done the role more than any other actor. The character was first created on Broadway by Zero Mostel; the 1971 screen version featured Topol. Bikel admits that he’s “far older now than the character.
“But I come from a theater tradition where 50 year-old women played Juliet. In Europe, it was accepted that an actor was an actor. In America, people expect you to be what you act. In some ways, it’s nice to get that total acceptance of the seeming reality of your portrayal. But art is not that simple. It requires the audience to use its imagination.”
Bikel who speaks multiple languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, German, English, French), started his acting career at age 19, when he joined the Habimah Theatre in Israel. A year later, he co-founded the Israel Chamber Theater (the “Cameri).” He went on to graduate with honors from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. The Oscar and Emmy-winning actor has appeared in more than 35 films and innumerable TV shows. As an international folksinger, he’s recorded more than 20 albums and still gives concerts. But he always comes back to the theater.
“The stage is my first love,” he says. “It’s the granddaddy of all the performing arts. But what live performance does is so evanescent, it tends to be forgotten after the theater seats are cold. But I often get letters from people who heard me years ago and remember. That’s very rewarding.”
He has little unfinished business onstage, except for one role: “Eventually, I’ll get to King Lear,” he says. “I’m still too young for it.”
Unlike Tevye and Lear, Bikel has sons, not daughters. One is “a budding film producer,” the other, a music-composing Ph.D. candidate in computer science. “My being a father — I hope a loving father — brings that element to Fiddler. You bring what you can bring. I’ve played murderers, I’ve played kings. I can’t bring anything to that.”
Bikel laments the devolution of the American musical, what he calls “people falling in love with stage techniques. You can’t come out of the theater and whistle a chandelier. In this show, there’s no artificial fog, no chandeliers that fall. What distinguishes Fiddler is its simplicity.”
What also distinguishes Fiddler, the 1965 winner of nine Tony Awards, is its heart-wrenching story and its magnificent music (“Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset”). Alan J. Lerner (composer of My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon) considered it “a work of perfection.”
The show defied all the accepted rules of commercial success, by dealing with persecution, poverty and the problems of holding onto traditions in a hostile world. The book, by Joseph Stein, and the score, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, took the world by storm; Broadway’s ninth longest running musical has been performed in 30 countries, in 15 languages and on 18 original cast recordings. The title was inspired by a Marc Chagall painting that depicted an oval-eyed violinist, seemingly dangling in space over the roofs of a peasant village.
Set in 1905, in the (invented) Russian Jewish shtetl of Anatevka, the play shows, in a tuneful, often humorous way, how Tevye and his wife Golde try to ward off sickness, deprivation and the anti-Semitic Cossack riots (pogroms), while maintaining their faith and finding suitable mates for their five marriageable daughters.
Sounds serious, no? But Tevye is a delightful, resourceful, endlessly amusing character, a man who plaintively asks his God, ‘Would it be such a crime “If I Were a Rich Man?”
Bikel obviously adores and admires the character, but it would still seem to be a challenge to keep a portrayal fresh after so many repeat performances.
“I don’t give carbon copies of my performances,” he asserts. “But keeping it fresh is not difficult. It’s the sense of respect I have for the character. Nobody asks a farmer how he does his chores year in and year out. The plants change, the weather changes. It’s never exactly the same. Nobody asks Yitzhak Perlman how he keeps Brahms fresh after so many times.
“I learn a little humility from Tevye. And about how to survive in a world of adversity. He keeps tradition and manages to bend tradition. That’s the universality.”
[Fiddler on the Roof, brought to us by Broadway/San Diego, will run at the Civic Theatre from March 6-11; 619-570-1100; 619-220-TIXS]
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.