When National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) began preview performances of their highly anticipated Yiddish language version of the timeless musical Fiddler on the Roof back in July, the large cast and crew could hardly have anticipated that the show would become the hottest ticket in town. Need proof? How about: Shows sold out weeks in advance. Multiple run extensions. A seemingly endless list of positive reviews. And… renewed discussions and writings about the legacy of Yiddish theater. This New York City off-Broadway run marks the first time the Yiddish version of the musical has been staged since its world premiere in Israel more than 50 years ago. Helmed by Academy Award and Tony Award winner Joel Grey, the new production has boasted something that every producer, director, and actor hopes and prays for: a strong and positive word-of-mouth phenomenon . Fiddler has now extended its run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through Thursday, October 25th.
One of the performers in the large cast is New York City actor/singer Adam B. Shapiro, who plays the town Rabbi. Shapiro had almost no exposure to the Yiddish language while growing up, but auditioned for his first show in Yiddish (The Marriage Contract) ten years ago. He studied his lines phonetically. Shapiro didn’t get the part, but he described the experience as “a good audition”– and he kept The National Yiddish Theater on his radar. They kept him on theirs. Four months later, he got a call from his manager about a musical adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel Tam (Gimpel the Fool)— and he got the leading role. Shapiro kept his relationship with The National Yiddish Theater, and has seen the company grow impressively through the years. He continued with their surprise hit production of The Golden Bride, which became a New York Times Critic’s Pick and recipient of two Drama Desk Award Nominations. Shapiro has also appeared in a wide variety of regional theater roles, as well as on TV and in several movies, most recently Ryan Murphy’s version of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart for HBO.
Adam B. Shapiro spoke to me in a zesty interview about his own relationship with Fiddler on the Roof, his fun-loving and talented castmates, Tevye, and much more!
JR: Hello, Adam. Thank you for speaking with me!
AS: Thank YOU!
JR: So… Fiddler on the Roof has really cemented its legacy in American popular culture through the decades. So many have seen it on the stage, and even more all over the world have seen the movie. What is your own personal tie to Fiddler? How long does it go back?
AS: Fiddler was the first musical I ever did. I was nine! (Laughs) That’s when I saw the movie, and that’s when I really learned about it. I was in summer camp. There were people in that camp who had learned about the show when they were younger than me. They had learned about it from their families. But when I was nine, I played Motel the tailor! It was my first time in a musical, and I was just so excited, and that’s what started it all. Then I played Tevye when I was a senior in high school. Fiddler is a big part of my history. First it was in camp, then it was in high school. While I was doing it in high school, someone from Musical Theater International– the company that licenses a lot of musicals– were getting ready to record a demo album of their Junior version of Fiddler. The Junior section features condensed versions of some of their shows meant to be done by middle schools. For reasons I will never really truly know (!), they were recording this in a studio just outside of Indianapolis, which is where I’m from. I assumed that they decided that they could find good voices there and pay less– I don’t know! They sent someone from the company to come see our show, and a few of us were asked to come and do a recording audition. They ended up hiring me to sing Tevye on their album! So, to this day, when someone requests the rights for “Fiddler Junior”, they get that demo album with a 17 year old Adam B. Shapiro as the voice of Tevye!
JR: Oh wow! They paid you for that, right? (Laughs)
AS: Absolutely they paid me for that!
JR: Any residuals?
AS: (Laughs) No, no! No residuals! But for a 17-year old boy from the Midwest, they paid me very well! I was like, “I am a star!” It was really cool. Then I moved out here and started auditioning for production after production of Fiddler on the Roof, and I never got cast. I have been waiting my entire career to finally do a professional production. But depending on what you believe about G*d or the universe or whatever, now I know what the holdup was– because THIS was meant to be my first!
JR: Well, congratulations! It just goes to show that sometimes we go looking and looking for something, and then when we least expect it, IT finds US! Now… the Yiddish theater scene has always existed in its own subculture for so long– but lately the success of Fiddler has shown that the demand for Yiddish language productions is greater than ever– and also that new, younger generations are discovering it for the first time. What is that about?
AS: I grew up with no Yiddish. I grew up in Indianapolis, which has a fairly sizable Jewish community. But growing up Yiddish was not part of it. I went to Hebrew school, but nobody in my family spoke Yiddish. I would hear words that I knew were Yiddish, like “tuchus”, “klutz”, “schmuck”…
JR: And “mishegas”! All such nice words! (Laughs)
AS: (Laughs) And of course, I learned many more of those nice words when I moved out to New York! But what I had become aware of since I started doing Yiddish theater was that as the Jews were coming over from Eastern Europe and Russia and everywhere, Yiddish was their predominant language. Most people were raised in Yiddish-speaking households with English as a second language. After a few generations, parents stopped teaching it to their children. They would encourage their kids to speak in English to sound more American. Also, they would not teach them Yiddish so that they could speak in front of their kids and not be understood if they were talking about something they didn’t want their kids to know about! The adults would “switch” to Yiddish! So, as a result, the kids who never learned it never taught it to their kids, who never taught it to their kids, et cetera… Certainly by the time I was born, Yiddish was– I don’t want to say it was “dying out”, but it was not around. So, the Yiddish theater has been such a driving force. I don’t know if you know this, but there used to be dozens of Yiddish theater companies in town. There used to be a whole Yiddish theater area down on Second Avenue. There were Yiddish theater stars: Molly Picon, Menasha Skulnik… just all of these big stars. As the language started to fade, so did the companies. It left only a few. But the National Yiddish Theater especially has been really pushing to have this resurgence, because now we’re seeing a lot of young Jews who want to reconnect to that part of their history and who know that their great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents probably would have been fluent in Yiddish– and certainly if they were from an Ashkenazi family. I think that some of us are really now looking to connect with that part of our history. That’s what Yiddish theater has done for me. I’ve had conversations with some of my aunts and uncles and they were like, “You know, your great gram Tovah spoke all of this…” and all that. It’s been a great way to dig a little deeper into my roots. I think that’s what you’re seeing with this young interest in Yiddish. And now they are able to see something that they are very familiar with– Fiddler on the Roof— in the language those people would have spoken!
JR: I don’t speak Yiddish, but I have seen several plays in the language. Of course, the English subtitles are projected onto a screen for the audience to see, but even without reading them, you still “get” it. It’s a very powerful and dramatic language. The message of the story comes through in a way that it probably wouldn’t come in through as clearly if it was in English.
AS: Right! The language serves so well to theatricality!
JR: What has in been like working with such a large cast?
AS: The cast is spectacular. You are right, it is a large cast– with all different ages, different backgrounds in terms of Yiddish… Some are Jewish, some are not. It doesn’t matter. They had the largest turnout for their auditions. That’s understandable– I mean, it’s Fiddler on the Roof, and of course, it’s Joel Grey!– but they saw 700 people. So, they had options. But they were very specific with who they wanted for these roles. I think we all just knew coming in that we were going to be creating something special. Some of us had done Fiddler before, some of us hadn’t. Our Tevye, Steven Skybell, had been a replacement for Lazar Wolf in the most recent Broadway revival… and I want to go on record as saying that Steven is one of the best Tevyes I have ever seen. He is outstanding! Every drop of praise that he has gotten has been deserved. He is the “Papa” of our show; he really is! Stephanie Lynn Mason, who’s our Hodel, had been a swing in the most recent revival… Jennifer Babiak, who’s our Golde, had been a cover for the daughters in the 2004 revival. So, it’s like everybody has different levels. And then you have Jackie Hoffman as Yente, who in her career has never done Fiddler! (Laughs)
AS: Who knew she’d want to try Yiddish? But I think that everybody just really knew coming in that we’d be working on something really special. And when you know that, how can you help but not have a great time with it? There are so many dressing room shenanigans going on! I don’t know if you’ve seen any, but there have been three dressing room music videos made! (Laughs) So, we’re having a blast!
JR: I can tell! It seems like a very youthful, very energetic, and very New York cast. Are there any out-of-towners in the “Fiddler family”?
AS: Everybody in the cast lives in New York now. But we are all from “all over the place”! Oh wait… No! We have two people: Daniel Kahn, who plays our Perchik, actually is based out of Berlin. But he’s done a lot in the world of Yiddish theater and Yiddish music. He and I did Death of a Salesman in Yiddish together. We did it first in New York and then in Toronto. He played Biff and I played Howard. He’s the quintessential “Perchik”! So, I’m not surprised he was cast. I was thrilled. Lisa Fishman, who’s our Grandma Tsaytl and who covers Golde, is based out of Los Angeles– but she’s done a lot of work with Folksbiene. This is our third time working together! I think everyone else is from New York! I also have to mention our choreographer Staś Kmieć. He is sort of the “keeper” of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and direction. He has worked on the show so many times as a performer, director, and choreographer. He’s really had his eye on preserving the original choreography, modified slightly for a smaller stage but really insisting that it’s the way it was meant to be– and preserving that “tradition!”, if you will. Zalmen Mlotek is our Musical Director and also Artistic Director of Folksbiene. His eye and ear is on the music but also on the Yiddish, and he makes sure we are speaking correctly and in a way that’s authentic to the language. Those three different components coming together– the choreography, the musical and language direction, and Joel Grey’s direction– is what has created the show. It’s a marvelous mixture of old and new. It’s “the perfect storm”, if you will!
JR: Wow! So, you told me that you are understudying for the actor playing Tevye. Tevye is undoubtedly one of Sholem Aleichem’s most iconic characters…
AS: Without question!
JR: In your study of that character, what have you had to learn?
AS: This is my first time understudying. I’ve never understudied before this production. So, it’s been interesting having to work on the material mostly on my own. I watch Joel work with Steven and I really see where he is coming from. On the other hand– “Un tsurik geshmuest” (Laughs)– I’m not him! So now, working on that character as an understudy, I am trying to find my take on it all. As someone who doesn’t have children, what does the idea of fatherhood mean to me in that protective element? I feel that way towards some of my friends, and I have a four year old niece who I’m very close to… so it’s finding that idea, along with my own life and my own traditions, of what it would mean if someone really broke one of those traditions. How far would you be willing to bend before you break? And that’s the thing with Tevye and his daughters. The first one comes to him and says, “Papa, I don’t want to marry the man you’ve chosen. I want to marry the man I love: the tailor!” Tevye, first hearing that, is like, “WHAT?! TRADITION! Marriage must be arranged by the Papa!” And then he finally realizes that he can chill on that one: the tailor is a good, hard-working Jewish man. OK. Then the second daughter comes: “Papa, I’m going to marry this revolutionary student who’s leaving.” Tevye says, “I’m not going to give you my permission”. She says, “I didn’t ask you for it. I’m going to marry him.” Once again: “TRADITION! NO!” And then finally, “I like this guy too. Fine…” It gets progressively bigger, and then Chava comes, and says, “I want to marry this man who’s not Jewish.” And that’s finally the tipping point. Now we are not just challenging my role as father, but you are challenging my faith and the faith that I always tried to instill in you… and for what? This yahoo? And so that’s finally when he says, “No!” And this is a question that I am still answering: What would be the breaking point that would finally make me say, “Now you’re on your own!” As I’m studying the role, I am still working on that question!
JR: Wow! So, what would you say to someone who would have hesitations about seeing a play in a language they don’t speak?
AS: I would ask them, first of all, if they’d ever seen a foreign language movie with the subtitles on the bottom of the screen. Or, have they ever seen an opera in Italian or French where they have the supertitles over the screen? Because that’s us. It’s the same thing. We have the English projected on either side of the stage at all times. We have it in Russian too, because we have a large contingency of Russian speaking people who come to the shows. If you know Fiddler on the Roof: It’s not arbitrarily in another language. This is the language that these people spoke! There are cadences that are just so funny, or just so dramatic, or just so appropriate, that it just adds something. We’ve been having all these fabulous VIP special guests…
JR: I’ve seen!
AS: Christine Ebersole came the other night. Christine Ebersole is not Jewish and has no connection to Yiddish, and she was sobbing when she came backstage. I was one of the first people who got to talk to her, and oh my G*d, she just kept crying. She said it was like she had never seen the show before… and she’d seen it a lot! She said that it was so authentic, and so deep… The other thing about our show is that in terms of the design, it’s fairly minimal. Our set is basically these sets of giant sheets of paper kind of crumpled, and there are different panels of them. On the center one is written the word “Torah” in Hebrew/Yiddish letters. Pretty much besides that, everything is done with tables, chairs, and benches– including our roof that the fiddler is on in the beginning. We are costumed are almost as if we were a more modern Orthodox theater company doing Fiddler— so it’s not totally “period”. It’s somewhere between “period” and “Williamsburg”, if you will! The costumes are gorgeous. I have three different black jackets and I love all of them!
AS: Because of that, we are really able to just focus on the story. People can see the story, and hear the story, and just focus on it– because there’s not all this other stuff vying for attention. So… for someone who would say, “I don’t want to see a show that I don’t understand”, I would say “Give it a chance. You may very well surprise yourself!” Especially today, when immigration is once again in the forefront of the news and– not to spoil anything for the two people who have never seen Fiddler on the Roof!-– (Laughs) these people are told, “Get thee out!” They have to uproot themselves from the only home that they’ve ever known, and figure out where to go in the world. You hear several of them making plans to come to America and become part of that massive wave that happened in the early 20th century. Maybe some of them never made it past Ellis Island. You hear Tevye and Golde and the two youngest daughters saying that they were going to Uncle Avrem in America. But then you hear Tzeitel and Motel and their new baby were going to Warsaw until they had enough money to join them. Did they get out before World War II? We don’t know. It’s possible they didn’t. And then Yente says that she is going to the Holy Land, Israel. But this was before anyone had really gone to Israel from that area of the world. Then there’s the question: Did Yente make it? You could make a whole series of fan fiction of what happened to all of these people when they left Anatevka. In fact, Alexandra Silber, who I’ve known for a long time and who played Tzeitel in the last revival of Fiddler and played Hodel on the West End, wrote a novel called After Anatevka, which gives an account of what happened to Hodel when she left Anatevka to join Perchik after he was arrested and sent to Siberia.
JR: I think that Ryan Murphy would be best suited to make an FX mini-series of life for these characters after Anatevka! He would be great at re-creating that historical setting and bringing it to life.
AS: (Laughs) You hear that, Ryan? Are you listening? Call me!
JR: So… earlier you had mentioned about how so many members of theater royalty have come to see the show. What has that been like for you?
AS: You get two different occurrences when a celebrity comes to see the show. Either they come backstage and talk to the cast and take pictures and everything, or they just leave right away and people tell you, “Guess who was here today?” after the show! Pretty much, all of the celebrities have come backstage to talk to us. A couple of times there have been two in one night, which is almost too much! (Laughs) There was when Bernadette Peters and Bebe Neuwirth came on the same night. These aren’t just stars! These are two legends, and they are here on the same night? My head was exploding! Bebe Neuwirth was so effusive in her praise. We’ve had Mandy Patinkin. He addressed the whole cast and almost broke down when he was talking. He was talking about listening to the Sunday in the Park with George album ten years after they did it, and he was getting so emotional because he didn’t realize at the time what they had… because at a certain point it does just become your job: I gotta show up, I gotta do two shows today, yada yada yada… He said that it really stopped him in his tracks. It made him truly realize what we had. He said that we had to realize NOW that we had something incredible. He said, Please cherish that and keep it with you forever because it doesn’t happen every day. He was really emotional when he was saying this. So… hearing him speak… Seeing Christine Ebersole sobbing… Seeing Andrea Martin, who I saw in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway as Golde, come see us and be so fascinated by every part of the process as she talks to us with these wide eyes… Debra Monk came also. What a sweet woman! She was also really interested in the process. Chaim Topol, who played Tevye in the movie, also came. He came backstage, and talked to us, and took some pictures. But of course, the trump card in all of this is Joel Grey. He wanted to direct this and wanted to be a part of it. His father, Mickey Katz, was a vaudeville performer who did a lot of Jewish work, and spoke Yiddish, and worked the Catskills. That was very much a part of Joel’s early life. I think that for him, being able to come in and do this has been a really cool way to connect to that part of his life. He’s just the sweetest man: so very detail-oriented in his directing approach, but always smiling and with a kind word. I can only speak for myself, although I am sure many members of the cast would echo me in this: At a certain point when we started performances and everything was going so well, it hit me that not only was I working with Joel Grey, but he picked me! Christine Ebersole said the other day as she was hugging Joel, “Ninety nine percent of directing is casting!” He was nodding: “That’s true!” At a certain point it hit me that not only am I working with Joel Grey, but I’m working with him because he wanted to work with me, and he chose me not just to play the rabbi, but trusts me with understudying the big guy. That mad me go, “Wow!” Whether we close in October, run for another two months or six months, run for another year, transfer to Broadway– who the hell knows?– but I’ll have that for the rest of my life and career. And that is COOL!
JR: Well… all I can say to that is… “l’chaim!” Congratulations to you and the entire cast and crew!
Fiddler on the Roof continues through Thursday, October 25th at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, New York City. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.NYTF.org or call 866-811-4111. Show tickets include same-day, complimentary admission to all Museum exhibitions.
(All Fiddler on the Roof photos by Victor Nechay/ProperPix.)