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Playing With Fierstein

Does Harvey Fierstein's Tevye have Filichia jumping for joy or just shouting "oy?" logo
Harvey Fierstein in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
I know this will sound odd, but while I was watching Harvey Fierstein do Fiddler on the Roof, I thought a lot about Barbra Streisand in the film version of Hello, Dolly!.

Sounds crazy, no? Here's what I mean: When I first saw the Dolly movie in 1969, I was, like most everyone else, utterly horrified. Streisand seemed even more miscast as Dolly Gallagher Levi than I'd expected. True, screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Gene Kelly had made her simply Dolly Levi (sans Gallagher), so this Jewish-American entertainer would seem ideal to play a Jewish-American matchmaker. But Streisand was too callow. She was then 27, an age at which most women aren't yet widowed, and she was pursuing a man almost twice her age. Walter Matthau was pushing 50 at the time but -- as he said many times in his career -- no matter what age he was, he always looked older.

And yet... and yet... some years ago, when the soundtrack album of Hello, Dolly! was released on CD, I heard Streisand do those famous Jerry Herman songs for the first time since the day when I'd been appalled by the movie. And do you know something? Now I was glad to have her take on the role. Instead of carping at the miscasting, I was happy to hear what another megastar did with the material. That voice riding over the melody in "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," the "hmmmm" of satisfaction in the title song -- even the terribly mannered moment, in a number that she wrongly appropriated ("It Takes a Woman"), when she imbues the word "wife" with 12 shades of meaning. It's pure Streisand, pure star power -- and I'd much rather hear what she does with these songs than with "Ave Maria" or "The Flim-Flam Man."

Now we have Harvey Fierstein's interpretation of Tevye, which hasn't pleased everyone, either. But has this piece of casting spoiled some vast, eternal plan? Is it a bad thing that it has sparked some interest in a low-profile production to which you previously would have had no trouble getting two on the aisle any night of the week, including the seven-day span between Christmas and New Year's? Without Fierstein, the revival undoubtedly would have closed. So, while the set's still on the stage of the Minskoff, why not bring in a true star to star on it?

Fiddler can always use a star, which it hasn't had for the lion's share of its Broadway performances. Was Zero Mostel a star? Of course. Alfred Molina, Herschel Bernardi, Topol, Jan Peerce and Luther Adler? Semi-stars -- or maybe semi-demi-hemi stars. Paul Lipson, Harry Goz, Jerry Jarrett? Not to be unkind, but they were genuine nobodies, so to once again have someone bigger than life in this bigger-than-life part is nice. For that matter, this now marks the first time in nearly 40 years that a production of Fiddler has sported two leads who are also Tony winners. (Andrea Martin won for My Favorite Year, remember?) Not since Mostel and Maria Karnilova played their last performance together in the summer of 1965 have we had that. And while we can't make much of Fierstein's winning four Tonys to Mostel's three, because two of Fierstein's were for writing, he does have two more in the acting department than everybody else who played Tevye in New York -- combined.

Of course, those trophies doesn't ensure a good performance; we can all tick off Tony winners who have embarrassed if not humiliated themselves in subsequent roles. But isn't it kinda fun, for a change, to see someone unexpected in a part? Did we ever expect -- hell, did Fierstein ever expect -- that he'd be onstage saying the line, "I am going to dance with my wife"? There can't have been too many performers who have gone from playing the mother of one daughter to the father of five.

All right, Fierstein can't sing -- not in the way that we were brought up to believe singing should sound. Yes, The Incomparable Rosalie's comment about "a strangulated duck" in Carnival comes immediately to mind. But in "If I Were a Rich Man," both his "daidle, deedle, daidle, digguh, digguh, deedle, daidle, dum" and his "boi, boi, boi, boi, boi, boi, boi, boi, boi" are full of feeling, not just sound. What's more, his animal noises are easily the best I've heard since Mostel, and that's my litmus test of how any Tevye compares to Mostel.

As for his dealing with the show's comedy, you might say that he gives new meaning to Tevye's occupation of milkman; he definitely milks the laughs. Yes, all of Fierstein's trademark mannerisms are here, the ones that will delight his fans and displease his detractors. There's the wide-eyed look of disbelief, the wince at something painful followed by the look of confusion, and the shrug that he likes to do -- which does fit Tevye well. When Lazar Wolf pours him yet another drink, he sticks his tongue out in glee. He indicates a lot, brays when he says "siddown!" And when he walks in on Chava and Fyedka and is told their news, he bellows "Engaged?" in the bass octave. (Here, he shows evidence of a bad case of SuttonFoster-itis, named for a performer who never tires of dropping her voice to get a cheap laugh.)

Andrea Martin and Harvey Fierstein in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Still, there's a sincerity to most of the performance. When this Teve says, "Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do," he feels it. True, when he says of Anatevka's population, "We've always had our special types," I almost felt as if her were going to out the gay villagers. But before I could dwell on that, I noticed that Fierstein was snapping his fingers as if he really felt the music that was playing. In short, he has warmth, heart, and a zest for life. (John Kander was at the performance I attended. I wonder if, any time during the show, he thought to himself, "Hmmm, here's our Zorba for the next revival!") And when the show turns serious, Fierstein is almost always on target. When he tells Tzeitel, "All right, I won't force you" (to marry Lazar Wolf), many an audience member is going to wish his or her parent had been as caring and indulgent. When asking Hodel about her future husband, the revolutionary Perchik, he says softly, "So he's in bad trouble, this hero of yours?" before adding a slight smile to ameliorate the tough question, followed by a hangdog look that says, "He really is, isn't he?"

It's pure Fierstein: Hoping to make something into a joke but only for a second, because the true matter at hand must be confronted. In "Do You Love Me?" when he wants to know if his wife indeed does, the way Fierstein says "Golde, I'm asking you a question" has the most heartfelt subtext of "Please, I really need to know" that I've ever heard a Tevye bring to the line. He does well in the scenes where he talks to himself about the issues that he's facing with his daughters, weighing all sides of the question with "On the other hand." Eventually, though, when Chava marries a Gentile, he must decide, "There is no other hand." I've always seen this moment played with great anger, but Fierstein opts instead for agony, a far more effective (and affecting) choice.

Then there's the moment when Tzeitel tells her father that she loves Motel and Fierstein says "She wants him!" with a scrunched-up face that shows utter bewilderment. This makes sense to me. Why would any girl love the Motel that John Cariani has put on stage? I'm reminded of the question that Jerry Zaks asked when he decided to remount Anything Goes: If Sir Eveyln Oakleigh is played as an idiot, as he routinely had been in the past, why would Reno Sweeney love him? Ditto Cariani, whose herky-jerky motions make him seem overly silly, a man-boy that only the dumbest, most desperate of women would want. Cariani doesn't grow as much as the other Motels I've seen, the ones who truly turned into mensches as time passed and they became comfortable as husbands and businessmen. In the later scenes, Cariani is still hoping that the audience will laugh at his body language, which bears no resemblance to that of any human being I've ever encountered. By the time Tevye states with certainty, "That Motel is a person," Motel had better have become one -- but Cariani has not.

Never mind. I come not to bury Cariani but to praise Fierstein. As Perchik says to Hodel, "Without curiosity, your brain is a rusty tool." The producers and creators of Fiddler were curious to see if Fierstein would work as Tevye, and ambitious theatergoers should be equally curious about a production that's been around almost a year but has no rust on it now.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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