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In some ways, the social phenomenon of Harvey Fierstein’s appearance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof is as interesting as the performance itself. Here, after all, we have an artist who represents almost everything that Fiddler is not: a downtown cult figure whose beginnings lie in the Ridiculous, with its camp rebellion against pop culture; an author-performer moved at least partly through his political anger to re-enter the mainstream and become a pop culture hero himself; an openly gay artist partly known for appearances in drag, last celebrated as the onstage inhabitant of Edna Turnblad’s oversize dress in Hairspray. Fierstein is the exact opposite, one might say, of the middlebrow, middle-class, heterosexual mainstream form we call the classic Broadway musical.
But as always in art, the opposite is as true as the initial premise: Symbol of the mainstream, the musical has always been the composite invention of a set of outsider groups; gays—the outsider group that is inside every other group—have always been one of its basic elements. And innumerable artists who’ve enhanced the art form came from minority-theater roots not unlike Fierstein’s: Before his collaboration with composer Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler‘s lyricist, made much of his reputation writing satirical songs performed in Off-Broadway revues by artists like Bea Arthur and the late Dorothy Greener—cult figures in the gay Greenwich Village of their heyday as Harvey has been in his; only back then, gay was a secret code and not a niche market.
In our day, the Broadway musical has started to lose the richness of the multi-ethnic composite that made it so distinctively “American,” and has become a product of international marketing, with the grim, anonymous look and sound of high-tech multi- national plug and play. That is its principal problem today, and was the principal problem with David Leveaux’s production of Fiddler when it opened a year ago: The show looked, sounded, and felt much more like a standard European production of anything than like a staging of Fiddler. Its gray tone of perpetual autumn and its curt, inward-turned emotional style missed both the reality of the village life being portrayed and the zest of the American authors’ satisfaction in looking back on it and seeing how much of the memory had survived. Leveaux’s awkward attempt to reproduce images from Chagall literally in the dream sequence only underscored his failure to realize that the whole thing should have been a dream infused with Chagall’s sensibility, for which he had substituted a rather reductive analysis.
So the question naturally came: How would the presence of Harvey Fierstein, trading Edna’s bouffant wig for Tevye’s skullcap, alter this freeze-dried, reduced Fiddler, with its pallid climaxes and its cold heart? Would Tevye, the philosophical dairyman with five daughters, suddenly reveal a nelly streak? Or would Harvey’s downtown sensibility find him constantly stepping out of character, commenting on Tevye’s mores, deconstructing the story with offhand gestures and raised eyebrows as it went along? No fear—first and foremost, Fierstein is a pro. The staging may be cold but Tevye is warm. Unlike his predecessor in the role, Alfred Molina, Fierstein may turn the emotions inward but never underplays them. If there are mild hints of a gay sensibility in his whirlwind hand gestures, or his occasional Edith Evans line readings, there’s also plenty of the Jewishness that this revival of a work by Jewish artists on a Jewish subject so signally lacked before he stepped in. And who says the most famous gay actor-playwright of his time can’t play a man who loves his daughters, or wonders if his wife loves him? Fierstein is convincing on both counts. His intensity seems to have stirred an equivalent response in Andrea Martin, who invests Golde with a housewifely fierceness that the marvelous Randy Graff, playing opposite Molina, somehow never located.
Fierstein’s shortfall comes, predictably, in singing, which has never been his field of expertise. “You are an extraordinary person,” Gertrude Stein told Picasso, “but your limits are extraordinarily there.” The role of Edna was tailored to the limitations of Harvey’s extraordinary voice; Fiddler was tailored to an artist of operatic vocal capacity. (Imagine Fierstein taking up any other role that had been sung by both Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill.) It isn’t that he can’t hit the notes, but that he can’t hit them ringingly. His warmth and charisma resonate, but his vocal tones never will.
To speak of Harvey’s charisma is to mention another aspect of the role for which he’s an inexact fit. Tevye, however wily, is a poor man with an eager hunger for life. Offer him schnapps, he drinks; offend his pride, he says, “Get off my land.” Zero Mostel’s comic gift, around which the role was built, lay precisely in his ability to seize every moment; a zest for living was his onstage essence. Fierstein’s comic persona, carefully constructed over decades, is that of a person who thinks first; his zest for living always comes on the afterbeat. (The quintessential Harvey moment is the scene of Torch Song Trilogy in which Arnold’s ward lures him into ordering breakfast.) In this regard, his quality doesn’t hinder the show but shifts its sensibility—or would if it had any sensibility to shift. The paradox of casting Fierstein is that his strengths throw the shortcomings of Leveaux’s production into high relief, while his limitations make you long for an alternative version, with the sweep and style of Jerome Robbins’s original, that would carry him along. His presence in the role brings back just enough of Fiddler‘s reality to make you resent the lack of the rest.