Set in a shtetl in czarist Russia in 1905, the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof” has been staged hundreds of times around the world since its Tony Award-winning Broadway debut in 1964. With universal themes of family, tradition and inhumanity that perennially resonate, especially in today’s turbulent times, ‘Fiddler’ is ripe for a revival — or two. The national touring company arrives in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre on April 16 while a Yiddish-language version is playing to packed houses off-Broadway in New York.
Following in the footsteps of Zero Mostel, Chaim Topol, Herschel Bernardi and Harvey Fierstein, Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov takes on the central role of Tevye the dairyman in his first American tour. While he was familiar with the stage and screen versions of the musical, he had his own approach. “Thinking about [other portrayals] can throw you off. I’m not here to imitate things,” he told the Journal. “It’s the wrong way to do a role.”
Having played the part since September, “I’m discovering more and more layers, how this character is deeply connected to me, to my history,” Lazarov said, elaborating that his grandparents fled pogroms in Russia with their siblings, later meeting in Israel. “Having that in my own history brings more connection to Tevye for me.”
Raised in a religious family, he doesn’t consider himself very religious, but he continues to lay tefillin and keep kosher, the traditions he grew up with.
As for “Fiddler’s” enduring popularity, “It’s perfectly written as a comedy and a tragedy and shows tradition in such a beautiful way, with the Sabbath candles and the family sitting around the table,” he said, noting that tradition is also at the root of heartbreak: Tevye’s daughter Chava must choose between her family and her non-Jewish love. “Tradition can bring people together and drive them apart, as well,” he said.
Lazarov emphasized that “Fiddler” is “not just a sad and beautiful Jewish story. It’s a human story, a universal story about people who have been kicked out of their homes and are looking for somewhere to go. It rings a bell for everyone in the audience,” he said. “It’s so relevant and it’s something I’m proud to do, especially right now.”
Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who collaborated with composer Jerry Bock on “Fiddler’s” songs, spoke about the musical’s appeal in a telephone interview. “It’s a family show. It’s about a father and his children. So many people can identify with the problems of fatherhood and raising a family,” he said, calling the musical’s success “astonishing. It’s the most popular and the most performed of everything that Jerry Bock and I did. I’m very surprised and very gratified.”
“ ‘Fiddler’ is a human story, a universal story about people who have been kicked out of their homes and are looking for somewhere to go. It rings a bell for everyone in the audience.” — Yehezkel Lazarov
Harnick studied the Sholem Aleichem source material for inspiration while writing the show’s iconic songs, for which he and Bock won a Tony Award. “They’re so rich as stories and have so many things in them that I could translate into music and lyrics. Becoming familiar with those stories was a joy all by itself,” he said. Harnick said he found the themes “very personal. It reminded me of growing up in Chicago and studying for my bar mitzvah and going to the synagogue.”
The son of Russian and Austrian Jewish immigrants, Harnick grew up in a musical family and began playing the violin when he was 8. His other credits include “Fiorello!” “She Loves Me” and “The Rothschilds.” The Tony-, Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning nonagenarian currently is adapting a French play into an operetta and is among the interview subjects in the documentary “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles,” due out in August. “I play the violin at the beginning and at the end,” he said.
Lazarov brings 36 years of stage experience to “Fiddler,” mostly in nonmusical plays. His talent for performing emerged in kindergarten and by age 8 he was tap dancing onstage. He danced with the Batsheva Dance Company and acted with the Gesher Theatre in Israel, sang in a band while doing his army service and studied at the Actors Centre in London.
A photographer and filmmaker, Lazarov has curated art shows and written plays. He has played leading roles in more than 40 films and television productions, and for the last 10 years he has directed for the stage, in addition to choreographing shows and designing sets. “If I’m not doing a few things at the same time, I’m not enjoying myself,” he said. But of everything he’s done, Lazarov is proudest of the interdisciplinary arts school he founded, “where kids can study all the arts and not have to choose.”
All of that is on hold through July as he tours with “Fiddler.” This is the Tel Aviv native’s sixth trip to the United States and his fourth visit to L.A. (the first was for the premiere of “The Dybbuk” when he was 23). This time, his wife and three home-schooled daughters, ages 8, 12 and 15, are with him. “They come to every premiere,” he said. “We see a lot of beautiful roads and cities, and amazing museums in every city.”
At first, Lazarov hesitated to play Tevye because he thought of him as man much older than he, but he realized that at 45, he was just the right age. “This is one of the greatest, most professional productions and casts I’ve been with,” he said. “I’m so happy I took this opportunity.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs April 16-May 5 at the Pantages Theatre and May 7-19 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.