“It was a gut reaction that I knew I had to do this,” Joel Grey says. “Zalmen Mlotek, Folksbiene’s artistic director, called me and said he’d like me to direct it, and I said, I‘ don’t speak Yiddish.’ I’ve certainly been around a lot of Yiddish in my life—my father was a great Yiddish comedian—but I personally had never had the opportunity to speak it. So I thought very hard. And then I stopped thinking. I said, ‘I love this piece, I’ve loved it all my life, and I think I can do this. I don’t know how right now, but I think I can.’”
What Grey thought he could do—and has now done to critical acclaim—was direct National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, performed entirely in Yiddish. Grey first directed the work for a sold-out (and four-times extended) run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. Now the Off-Broadway production transfers to Stage 42, where it begins performances February 11.
The original 1964 Fiddler, based on Sholem Aleichem’s short stories about Tevye the milkman, his daughters, and their danger-fraught existence as Jews in a small Czarist Russian village (a shtetl, in Yiddish) during the late 1800s, won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The Folksbiene production of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical uses supertitles in English and Russian to translate Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish version, first presented in Israel in 1965. The New York Times called the current production “often thrilling” with “a kind of authenticity no other American Fiddler ever has.”
The son of Mickey Katz, a Yiddish comedian and bandleader, Grey, who is 86, first performed onstage when he was 9, and began his Broadway career in 1951 in his father’s Borscht Capades. Though he is best known for his Tony– and Oscar-winning role as the original Emcee in the musical Cabaret, on Broadway in 1966 and in the 1972 movie version, Grey was co-nominated with George C. Wolfe for directing the 2011 Tony-winning revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. (He was a replacement in the lead role in the original 1980s Off-Broadway version.)
Grey also earned Best Actor Tony nominations for George M!, Goodtime Charley, and The Grand Tour. He was the original Amos, Roxie Hart's duped husband, in the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago; Moonface Martin in the 2011 revival of Anything Goes; and the original Wizard in Wicked. The first play he directed was Tennessee Williams’ The Lady of Larkspur Lotion—in high school. He spoke about Fiddler, his career, how he directs, and his future plans.
Why he wanted to direct:
“I like it. I love actors, I love working with them, I love finding solutions with them. I was thinking the other day when I knew I was going to talk with you [about how] I was about to do a revival of Cabaret with [producers] Fran and Barry Weissler [in the mid-1980s]. And they had Anthony Quinn in the Broadway revival of Zorba not wanting to go on the road and not wanting to work with [the director on Broadway, Michael] Cacoyannis. And the Weisslers wanted to take it on the road. They were looking for a director to redo it. I had nothing to lose, so I told Quinn the truth – that one of the reasons you’re not having a good time is that you’re not giving anything to the other actors onstage. And he turned down everybody and hired me. We went into rehearsal, and I told him things that I thought would help him enjoy the experience and have the audience accept him more, and it worked.”
His directing principles:
“It’s sort of like being a psychiatrist, that you understand where the actors are coming from, if they have doubts about themselves or the character. You put it all together and you make it safe in rehearsal. The human condition essentially dictates what you are able to be wise enough to understand and maybe help an actor who doesn’t quite see it, or who’s blocked in that way. Kind of like a psychiatrist in a lot of ways. ... Half or three-quarters of it is casting—hiring the right people. We lucked out with this company of Fiddler.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I studied with Sanford Meisner and Wynn Handman. Those were my teachers, and it was really very much about understanding what this character is going through—the identification. That’s what makes a good actor: that he can imagine what it feels like because he himself has been there, or we can find a similar circumstance that he can identify with that will make that scene clear. [Grey sings:] Stanislavski! Stanislavski!”
Learning from his mistakes:
“You do things wrong in order very often to get to the right choice. In my early career, I was playing Anthony Newley’s roles in Stop the World – I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Those were my two roles that led to Cabaret. I [didn’ realize I] had to find my connection with the characters. Newley’s experience was so different. But in the human condition, we look for our mate, we long to take care of our children and keep them safe.”
Good decisions that paid off:
“[They came from the realization], “Oh, I can do that,” or “I know what that feels like.” It’s always about putting yourself in the character’s place and living that other character’s existence and understanding what he wakes up with every morning.”
About the Yiddish Fiddler:
“I was having lunch in a restaurant above the theatre at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and I saw the Statue of Liberty in the harbor, and I thought, O.K., there’s a Yiddish word I do know—beshert [destiny]. And I said yes, I’m going to do this.
“I invited a team of creative people I’ve worked with over the years to help me focus on the way in which to tell the story – Beowulf Boritt for sets, Ann Hould-Ward for costumes. Neither of them speak Yiddish either. And Peter Kaczorowski [lighting], despite his name, doesn’t speak it. We had a very low budget, and a giant expectation from a very, very famous piece of New York theatre. I listened to a couple of the songs from the recording of the Yiddish version that was done more than 50 years ago in Israel, and I liked the sound of it. It seemed to me to be exactly right. We put together what it’s going to look like and how do we make it happen in this beautiful little theatre. The museum is very inspiring; it’s really wonderful.
“More than a thousand people applied to be in the show. And we ended up with 29 people, most of whom did not speak Yiddish. [Only three spoke Yiddish well and nine others knew a little.] We had so little time, I think a month, to put it all together. So there was no looking back. We found Staś Kmieć [musical staging and new choreography], who had been in the cast of Fiddler road companies for ten or 15 years and had done a number of re-creations of the Jerome Robbins choreography and was really smart. So I had the benefit of his choreography that would be somehow seen so differently in the Yiddish production on a small stage.
“From the first performance, it was magical. The audiences are rapt listening to the Yiddish, and some people don’t even bother looking at the supertitles. Yiddish was the mamaloshen, the language of our mothers, that was so pure. To hear it, to have it set out there on the stage, openly, when in the past people would make fun of Yiddish, or not want to associate themselves with it in order to feel safe or to feel American, or to think I don’t want to remember my grandparents’ experience coming to the United States from Russia, is now a balm. It’s a balm to hear it spoken openly, freely, funnily, heartbreakingly, and to know that it’s the real thing. The musical is about survival. And family. Its [theme of immigrants fleeing violence] is about everything that is going on in the world even today. There are all these political events, and [the synagogue murders in] Pittsburgh, all these things going on that are awful and frightening. There’s a lot of fear around. The show has to do with the paternalistic wisdom that was the essence of Tevye, who loved his children and loved his life but was aware that danger was not far away. Not unlike today. This permeates the show because we all know that at the end we don’t know where they wind up or who survives.”
“I’ve been offered something else to direct this next summer, but I’m probably not going to do it. I directed [Paul Osborn’s] On Borrowed Time at Two River Theater in New Jersey [in 2013]. I made my theatre debut in the play at the Cleveland Play House when I was nine as the little boy. I just loved that piece, and I want to bring it to Broadway. [Editor’s note: There have been no announcements of a Broadway run.] One of the small parts in the New Jersey production was played by Steven Skybell, my Tevye.”