“Fiddler on the Roof”
8 p.m. Tues., March 20; 2 p.m. March 20-21; 7 p.m. March 21. Through March 21. $15-$65. Presented by Atlanta Broadway Series, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 1-800-982-2787, www.ticketmaster.com.
By Wendell Brock
Harvey Fierstein is holding forth about his role as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
How it’s an honor and a privilege to do it every night, how he bases his Russian milkman on the old Jewish men who used to sit on the stoop of his family’s home in Brooklyn, N.Y. How his very emo family starts crying at the beginning and boohoos till final curtain — every time they see the show. No doubt about it, Fierstein says, Tevye is “the best male role in the canon of musical theater,” and “Fiddler” is the best show ever. “I know that popular opinion is that it’s ‘Gypsy,’ but I don’t think the two of them compare. I just think …”
And then his famous gravel-on-sandpaper baritone voice goes from a loud whisper to a roar. “Lola! Lola, no!” he barks, abruptly halting the conversation so he can stop his “rescue puppy” from chasing the snowplow guy at his Connecticut home. You can almost see the campy queen who donned bunny slippers in “Torch Song Trilogy” and won his fourth Tony Award for playing full-figured Irma Turnblad in “Hairspray” chasing his pooch in the blizzard. A few minutes later, the phone rings and Fierstein croaks, “Now where wuz we?”
We wuz talking about “Fiddler.” That’s what.
In 2005, the actor with the one-of-a-kind growl stepped in for Alfred Molina in director David Leveaux’s Broadway revival of the classic. Now 57, he brings Tevye’s salt-and-pepper beard and prayer shawl to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, where the national tour of “Fiddler” runs Tuesday through March 21. It’s Fierstein’s first time on the road, and he is fully aware of the irony that shades the opening lines of the classic: “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?”
Fierstein — whose “Torch Song Trilogy” won him bookend Tonys for best play and best actor in 1982 — credits his mother for introducing him to the theater. He says he has a “visceral” memory of seeing Zero Mostel, the original Tevye, when the show opened in 1964. “For this kid from Brooklyn, it was mind-boggling. I had seen nuns in ‘Sound of Music.’ I had seen orphan boys in ‘Oliver.’ I’d seen all kinds of things. But I had never seen a stage full of Jews before. It was absolutely remarkable.”
When the flamboyant theater artist was approached about the role, he was leery. He had made his acting debut as “an asthmatic lesbian maid” in Andy Warhol’s only play, “Pork.” Now he was supposed to portray the papa of five daughters from the Russian village of Anatevka? Come again.
“I called Jack O’Brien, who directed ‘Hairspray,’ and I said to him, ‘What do you think?’” O’Brien said: “You either do it, or you spend the rest of your life telling people, ‘You know they asked me to do “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I said no.’ And people will say (sarcastically), ‘Yeah, sure.’ So you have no choice. You have to do it.’”
Fierstein put himself to another test. He sang “Fiddler” to the trio of aging writers: Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein. “I said, ‘You have got to know what your show is going to sound like. I assume there might be people who might say, “Well, he doesn’t have a pretty singing voice. Why is he doing this?”’ In my opinion, ‘Fiddler’ does not call for a pretty singing voice. Zero Mostel did not have a pretty singing voice. … Legend has it that Jerry Bock sat and wept while I sang ‘Chaveleh,’ and they all laughed at all the jokes in all the right places and they said, ‘You have our blessing.’” From their mouths to God’s ears.
“The only real downside of touring, one of the evils of touring that I’d never thought about before, is that you have to face the critics in every city,” he says. After a performance in a town he can’t recall, one reviewer called him the Tevye of his generation, while another said he had “absolutely no right playing this role.” That cracks him up.