It was already an incredibly busy time for Israeli actor, director and artist Yehezkel Lazarov. He was performing in one show in Tel Aviv, about to direct another and scheduled to curate an exhibition.
Then he found out that he’d gotten the lead in the U.S. tour of director Bartlett Sher’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” Lazarov had only two months before rehearsals began in New York.
“Everyone on my other projects was very generous, moving dates, finding someone to replace me, and helping me leave everything to do this tour,” Lazarov recalls. “Because English is not my first language, during that time I had to study by heart the whole script in English and take a voice class every morning. I also had vocal classes to learn the 11 songs I have in the show, and I did all that between rehearsals of the show I was directing.”
That was last fall. Twenty cities later, the “Fiddler” tour with Lazarov as patriarch Tevye has landed in Southern California. The show is playing the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through May 5, then moving on to Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from May 7 to 19.
Much as Lazarov, 45, is adapting to change, so has “Fiddler on the Roof.” Audiences for Sher’s “Fiddler” have found a new opening and close of the 55-year-old musical, one that draws parallels between the classic story and the headlines of today. An unrelated new production in Yiddish, the language of the 19th century Sholem Aleichem stories that inspired “Fiddler,” drew large enough audiences to downtown New York to recently move off-Broadway. A production of “Fiddler” in London, directed by legendary British director Trevor Nunn, moved to the West End in March.
Director Sher praises not just Lazarov’s talent but his physical and emotional stamina to tour as Tevye, the 1905 Russian milkman who worries aloud to God about his daughters, poverty and endangered community. “Not a lot of people could do it,” Sher says. “As in any of these great shows, there’s always a central character who has to carry the whole company.”
The Times spoke with Lazarov by phone as he and “Fiddler” were making their way to Los Angeles.
How would you describe Tevye after inhabiting him for months onstage?
It is wrong to see Tevye as only a naive milkman. He is one of those people who believes they are on the wrong track. Besides being a sensitive, caring and loving person, deep inside he’s very frustrated. He is full of potential, wanting to be a knowledgeable man. He would love to pray and worship God. He is the perfect example of a man who could be a clever student, but life and tradition brought him to where we meet him in “Fiddler.”
You’ve said that playing Tevye felt so natural to you it didn’t feel like a role.
When something is written very well, it crosses the border of understanding. Not only my role is written perfectly. All the roles are. Each time we perform it, we reach another layer. And the repetition, saying those words every night onstage, makes it feel like a prayer.
Did you grow up in a religious family?
My parents became more religious through the years. I grew up under the wing of my grandparents, and the tradition in my blood comes from them. When I was a boy, I would look up at the ceiling in my room and talk to God. I would ask questions, like Tevye does, testing him. I still say thank you every morning to God. I believe that there is something bigger than me.
How else does “Fiddler on the Roof” resonate for you personally?
At first, I didn’t understand how deeply this story is part of my roots. Then, one month ago, my grandmother died at 94 and I started thinking about it more. She came to Israel from a small Jewish community in Russia and when you imagine Anatevka, it was similar to where she lived. She and my grandfather fled Russia with all their brothers and sisters, and I remember hearing about how they had to run away and to hide on their way to Israel. It isn’t just the story of “Fiddler.” People actually lived these stories.
But you don’t have to go back to your grandmother and grandfather, because these stories of refugees are happening as we speak. I think that’s what makes “Fiddler” extremely relevant. As artists, doing the show is our way of helping these people. I appreciate that director Bartlett Sher is using the show to address the tragedy of refugees.
Fiddler’s appeal seems to cross religious and age boundaries. Do you see that when you look out at the audience each night?
It is interesting to see the variety of audience members, young and old, Jew and Christian. I see children 6 years old not understanding all the words in the show but understanding the energy that comes from it. I’m doing eight shows a week, sometimes two in one day, and one thing that keeps me alert is the audience. From the first note, they are there.
Chaim Topol was in his 30s when he played Tevye in the “Fiddler” film. Makeup helped him to look older on screen, and a few white hairs were plucked daily from director Norman Jewison’s beard and applied to Topol’s eyebrows. At 45, do you feel the right age to play Tevye?
Yes, that would be the age in a religious community back then. If you were 45, you might have started having kids when you 20. You could have five girls like Tevye does. My grandmother had 12 brothers and sisters. My grandfather had 11.
Family is clearly important to you. You brought your wife and three daughters with you for the tour.
It’s unbelievable what it means to the family. We’re doing home schooling. My daughters, who are 15, 12 and 8, are each carrying her own suitcase, and we’re going to another place nearly every week; at 5 in the morning, I tell them we’re moving to Baltimore or Memphis. All the educational research lately talks about how people in the future will have to handle fast changes, so it feels like we’re doing the right thing for them.
We have a deal. The first day, on the premiere in a new city, they come to the show. They’ve seen it 20 times already. My youngest daughter is learning English that way. It’s one of the most amazing experiences we could have as a family. At home, I would see my kids, but I was always on my way to the next place. They get to see me a lot now.
Isenberg is the author of “Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ the World’s Most Beloved Musical.”
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