When Fiddler on the Roof opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in July 2018, it seemed an unlikely hit. The revival had a small budget and only three weeks of rehearsals—not to mention the fact that it was entirely in Yiddish. Yet, after opening to ecstatic reviews, the show, directed by Joel Grey, is now in its second smash year of performances and has moved uptown to a commercial run at Stage 42.
At the heart of the production is Steven Skybell, who plays Tevye the dairyman, a role first made famous by Zero Mostel. A journeyman character actor who’s been in everything from Richard II to Wicked, Skybell won a Lucille Lortel Award for best actor in a musical for his work on the show. What’s it like to build a character in a language you don’t speak? And how does it feel to play the most iconic Jewish character in American theater during a time of rising anti-Semitism worldwide? I spoke to Skybell about the miracle of miracles that is Fidler Afn Dakh.
Slate: First off, I just wanted to say that I played Tevye in high school.
Steven Skybell: That’s funny. I grew up in a small Texas town. I remember the night that my local temple rented out the Winchester Theatre to all go view the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, the movie. I was probably 10 years old. For a young Texas Jew boy, who wanted to maybe be an actor, to see a movie where the story is about Jews … it was very empowering. I played Tevye when I was 17 at Interlochen. Then I played him again at 21 at Yale undergrad. Then it was a long hiatus, but I finally got to play him again.
Do you feel like there’s a lot of baggage around Tevye given that Topol and Zero Mostel both gave what are widely considered to be definitive takes on the role?
Yes. Absolutely. And in some ways, doing Tevye in Yiddish, there’s a little bit of a freedom in that. “If I Were a Rich Man” was going to have its own echoes because it’s in a language that isn’t Zero Mostel’s that we all know the recording [of]. Joel Grey was adamant from the beginning that we not succumb to a certain Broadway showbiz aspect to the story. He saw Fiddler in the out-of-town tryout in D.C. way back before it made its first Broadway appearance. He’s been cogitating about Fiddler since then. He was a great admirer of the production, but he felt there were things that he knew [were] in the piece that maybe never really had been brought to light.
Can you give an example?
Sure. Early in the play, Tevye has one of his first … monologues, where everything freezes and he’s wrestling with the question about if Lazar Wolf, the butcher, is the right husband for his daughter. We rehearsed in English, and then we would go to Yiddish. Early on, Joel urged me to pause before I said the word libe. He’ll be a good husband for her, he says he cares for her, and he told me to pause before I serve up the word love—he loves her.
There’s a long arc in this musical about the word love. He really tracked that so that when finally Tevye is stopped short with all that’s going on and says to his wife Golde, “Do you love me?” it’s really a watershed moment in their relationship. It’s all the way back in Act 1 that Tevye first finds that word in his mouth.
You just mentioned that you rehearsed it first in English and then in Yiddish. You’re not a fluent Yiddish speaker. How did you navigate that challenge?
I had studied a little Yiddish, but I’m certainly not fluent. I will tell you, we had three weeks to get this together downtown when we first did this. Without a doubt, it is the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life, ever. Motl Didner, Sabina Brukner, and Zalmen Mlotek were our three Yiddish coaches.* We also had three people in the cast who were Yiddish speakers. So I was drawing upon all of their knowledge. I loved it, but it was a little bit like your worst nightmare about cramming for an exam.
Did you feel a particular connection, speaking this language that comes from our history while playing one of the most iconic Jewish characters?
It is profoundly emotional. The first time I read the script in Yiddish, just the first line, “A fidler afn dakh,” I burst into tears. Our Yiddish version was written by Shraga Friedman, who was a renowned actor and director in Israel. He did this Yiddish translation in ’64. He did add some—through the approval of the creators—some things that were a little more Jewish.
A simple example, but a profound example, is that in the Broadway version, it’s “the Good Book.” In our Yiddish version, it’s di toyre [the Torah]. In the Broadway version, Tevye may talk about certain things about the Good Book, “as it says in the Good Book.” But in the Yiddish version, he’s quoting der toyre, and there’s all these specific Talmudic references that are peppered in that make it more than just a buffoonish man who wants to maybe be a little more book-learned. He has been immersed in Talmudic study. Maybe he still gets it wrong some of the time. But it just feels so much more rooted in the truth of a Jew of that time.
Tevye’s Jewishness is unlike the Jewishness of almost anyone I know today. He’s not only observant, he’s not only got a ritual-based practice, but he has this very direct one-on-one conversational relationship with God. How do your own Jewishness and Tevye’s Jewishness meet?
I was raised a Reform Jew in a small Texas town. But now I’m happy to tell you all my siblings, who were also raised Reform Jewish, are Orthodox Jews. My sisters wear sheitels, and they live in a very observant community in Dallas. My brother is an observant Jew. His wife converted to Judaism. I can’t be as observant a Jew as they, because of the profession I have and the life I have, so in that respect, I am constantly wrestling with my Judaism. Because I love Judaism as I think Tevye loves it. Yisroel means “to struggle with God.” That to me is the plight of the Jew. It’s a struggle between God and his stiff-necked people at times.
Fiddler’s had this extraordinary, unexpected success—moving uptown, the larger commercial room, the huge reviews—but it’s corresponded with this frightening uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence to such an extent that there’s metal detectors at the theater now. Doing this role necessitates getting in touch with yourself as a Jew in a new way. And there’s a pogrom in the middle of the show, and we had a pogrom at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during the run.
What’s that been like for you?
That’s not the only anti-Semitic event that has happened since we started doing this Fiddler. But that one had such power for me playing Tevye because those people were murdered in their—I’m getting emotional talking about it— but they were murdered in their synagogue. We know from history that Jews were burned in their synagogues.
In “If I Were a Rich Man,” the sweetest moment, the sweetest aspect, of Tevye’s dream is that if he were rich, he could sit in shul all day and go three times a day. That is turned on its ear when you see that a synagogue is not necessarily a safe place. So that became so bittersweet to me. That is where a Jew wants to be, and yet there’s no guarantee that that won’t end in horror.
But the other thing is that, experiencing Fiddler in the ’70s, I grew up feeling the message of Fiddler on the Roof was “Tevye! It’s a win-win! You’re going to go to America, and you’re probably going to make a lot of money, and you’re going to have a grandson like me!” So it’s all going to be good.
Of course that is no longer true for a Jew seeking asylum anywhere, but even in America it’s no longer true. That really sharpens what I think was always in the creators’ minds of this musical. It’s not a happy ending—it’s an ending filled with doubt and fear and uncertainty of the future. The final gesture of the musical is Tevye saying to the Fiddler, “Come with us.” That is to say, “We will not leave you behind. We will not abandon you. Because you are our defining emblem. To lose you is to lose ourselves.”
Correction, Oct. 22, 2019: This post originally misidentified Sabina Brukner as Sabrina Brukner.