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Harvey Fierstein found new life in old Tevye

Better known for drag performances, Harvey Fierstein tore the script of 'Fiddler on the Roof' apart to discover the special man inside Tevye.

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
For Harvey Fierstein, center, the character Tevye embodies modernity. 'Shtetl life is death,' the actor says. 'Many who left didn't make it, either. Tevye survived somehow. He moved into modern life. You watch him bend and bend and bend.'

Harvey Fierstein realizes almost everyone attending "Fiddler on the Roof" this week in Austin will arrive with at least one Tevye already inside their heads.

"That's the problem with doing a classic role," Fierstein oozes in his pebble-grinder basso. "There are always expectations. Expectations lead to prejudice. And prejudice is the greatest enemy of art. One should come to art with an open heart and an open mind."

Fierstein, best known for writing and starring in "Torch Song Trilogy" - also for playing Edna Turnblad in Broadway's "Hairspray" - analyzed almost every aspect of Tevye before playing him on Broadway five years ago. That spirit of artistic inquiry has extended through the tour that stops Tuesday through March 7 at Bass Concert Hall.

The Tevyes inside his head go way back. Fierstein, 58, distinctly remembers Zero Mostel's 1964 performances, which introduced the musical about shtetl life in Russia written by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein. The Jewish boy from Brooklyn was already theater-astute by age 12.

"My mother would buy tickets on the first row of the balcony for two or three dollars," he recalls. "We didn't have any money. But those are the best seats in the house. Then somebody figured that out, changed the name to the 'mezzanine,' and started charging as much as for the orchestra seats."

Seeing Jewish life portrayed so openly and lovingly in the theater shocked him.

"I knew that, in show business, Jews had to change their names, get a nose job and pass for white," he says. "And now the curtain comes up on a stage of full of Jews! They talked and prayed like Jews. They even looked like Jews with the prayer shawls hanging out."

Zero Mostel's inventive take on Tevye - sometimes more vaudeville than shtetl - reverberates in his memory, too.

"I can close my eyes and picture him on the cart and at Shabbat prayer," he says, then joking: "Three-hundred-eighty years later, they asked me to do it."

When the producers of the most recent - of many - Broadway revivals approached Fierstein to replace Alfred Molina, Fiestein had recently closed out his Tony Award-winning drag performances in "Hairspray." He wondered if there would there be any question of his famously unusual voice carrying the role.

"I insisted on singing the whole musical score for Jerry, Sheldon and Joe in a tiny studio with folding chairs," he says. "I didn't want there to be any surprises. For them."

He reports that they laughed through the performance. "I said: 'You still think this is funny after 40 years?'" One of the creators even wept.

Though some critics insist that an operatic baritone sing Tevye, Fierstein follows in the Broadway tradition of Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and other stars with character voices who made the transition from speaking to singing - the scariest moment in musicals - more credible. Which is important, given the emotional attachments audiences have made with this music.

"The songs in 'Fiddler' are practically folk music by now," he says. "Everybody knows 'Sunrise, Sunset,' 'Matchmaker,' 'Tradition.' You hear them at every bar mitzvah and wedding."

To prepare further, Fierstein read everything he could by Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the original Tevye tales. The actor listened to every recording of the musical, including one in Yiddish. He also watched the silent film version of "Tevye and His Daughters," gaining more insight into his character's pain when his daughter, Chava, decides to marry a Christian.

In other words, Fierstein immersed himself in what he calls "the classic American musical."

"I tore that script apart," he says. "I talked to the boys (his term of endearment for Bock, Harnick and Stein, the eldest now 97) over and over. They came to the show every other week."

Fierstein concentrated on what audiences would have perceived back in 1964.

"They were still of anti-Jewish feelings around them," he says. "Jews were still not allowed in some hotels. Signs read: 'No dogs or Jews.' That's hard for more modern audiences to understand."

Especially those for whom the "Fiddler" experience rests on the 1971 film with Topol or a high-school production. (For the record, Fierstein doesn't care for the movie adaptation, which he considers beautiful, but not true to the spirit of Aleichem.)

He says that the biggest mistake interpreting Tevye is making him an Everyman, just one of the people in the village.

"He's a special person," Fierstein says. "Because of his love for his girls, his love of life and his imagination. He's bridging the world of shtetl life into modernity. Shtetl life is death. Many who left didn't make it, either. Tevye survived somehow. He moved into modern life. You watch him bend and bend and bend. He embodies modernity."

Fierstein thinks the world has taken a step back from modernity with the rise of rigid fundamentalism. Yet he's still convinced of the positive effect of musicals.

"A magic happens," he says. "Three minutes into the show, you look out, and what used to be a mass of individuals are all now wearing the same goofy smiles. They are in Musical Comedy Land. They feel they are being taken care of."

Soon after opening in "Fiddler" on Broadway, Fierstein exited through the stage door to find a Hasidic family - a mother, a father and three children - on the sidewalk, waiting to see the cast.

"There was this child with piercing eyes, just staring at me," he remembers. "I said, 'Cookie, are you OK?' He replied in the most innocent way: 'Are you really Jewish?' Which took me right back to my first experience with 'Fiddler.' That made everything worthwhile. Or the (Jewish) phrase: 'That has been enough.'-"

mbarnes@statesman.com

'Fiddler on the Roof'

When: Tuesday through March 7

Where: Bass Concert Hall

Cost: $20-$64.

Information:Texas Performing Arts ; 471-1444