Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus
If you go
Topol will perform his signature role as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark from March 10 to 15. For more information, visit njpac.org or call 1-888-GO-NJPAC (466-5722).
March 5, 2009
Over the last 40 years, Chaim Topol has played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof all over the world, from England to Australia to the United States to Japan. But he’s never been to New Jersey.
Until now. Topol will make his first trip to the Garden State for eight stagings of the award-winning musical at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark beginning March 10.
The Israeli-born actor first played Sholem Aleichem’s most familiar character in London in 1967. According to his estimate, he has delivered those lines more than 2,500 times before millions of spectators.
Topol began his acting career while fulfilling his military obligation in the Israel Defense Forces. After three-and-a-half years of service, he established a traveling satirical theatrical group. In 1960, he founded the Haifa Municipal Theatre, where he played, among other parts, Petrucchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Azdak in Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Jean in Rhinoceros.
He also produced and took part in more than 10 Israeli films, including Sallah Shabati in 1964, where he starred as the head of a Jewish immigrant family dealing with the hardships of life in Israel in the early 1950s. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and earned Topol a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.
That role led to an invitation to open Fiddler on the Roof in London’s West End in 1967, which in turn paved the way for him to star in the 1971 film adaptation, for which he won another Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
When Fiddler made its Broadway debut in 1964, it wasn’t out of the question that some older audience members, their parents, or grandparents had actually lived in shtetls like Anatevka. But does the story still hold up?
“And how,” Topol said in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News from Minneapolis, where he was appearing in yet another run of the play. He recalled his debut in London, when a producer warned him before the play even opened that the project would be “a waste of time and money for you…. It will run for two months, three months, and then it will run out of Jews.
“Lo and behold, I can tell you it ran for four-and-a-half years and could have run for another four years,” Topol told NJJN.
Fiddler “talks about my family and about my inheritance,” he said, proud of his contribution in making it such a world-wide hit. Of all the people who have seen him in Fiddler, “I would say probably, at the most, 20 percent were Jews…. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the show.”
Topol chuckled at the suggestion that, at age 74 and after more than four decades, he might be tired of playing Tevye. “I don’t do it consistently,” he said. “This is the sixth or seventh production. Usually I limit it to a season. So altogether…I probably dedicated to Fiddler I’d say five years or so. It was a pleasure to deal with this material and it’s one of the best written for an actor-singer. So I really shouldn’t complain.”
The passage of time did change the way he felt about his character. “Obviously you gain experience,” he said. “You develop. I hope so — otherwise I’ve wasted 40 years.”
In the beginning, it was hard for Topol to imagine what it would feel like for a father to give away his daughter in marriage. “Now I’ve experienced it,” he said. “I gave my daughters away to wonderful gentlemen and my son married a lovely lady, so I don’t have to rely on my imagination. I know exactly what you feel, what you pray for, what you wish them.”
The same could be said for Tevye and his wife, Golde. When Topol first performed the role, he had been married to his wife, Galia, for eight years and couldn’t fathom the 25 years the Fiddler couple sang about in “Do You Love Me?”
In addition to his work on stage, screen, and TV, Topol is an accomplished singer.
“Twenty-five years? What are these two old people talking about?” Topol asked. “Now that I’ve been married for 52 years, I have a very different perspective on it.”
From stage to screen
Topol said he was somewhat surprised to be chosen to work on the film adaptation when director Norman Jewison approached him at the end of his London tour in early 1968 to offer him the role.
“I was very lucky to be molded in the beginning by a genius like Jerry Robbins [in the stage version] and then by Norman Jewison,” he said. “When I came to the film, I was well-rehearsed.”
Performing live is like walking a tightrope: you get only one shot to do it right. Compare that to filmmaking, where multiple takes from numerous angles are the norm. Didn’t that get frustrating after awhile?
“Not at all,” he said. “The fact that you do take one, take two, take three, take 25 is not boring. On the contrary, it’s challenging. It’s true that you don’t get the big laughter from the audience as you get in the theater, but again, the fact that I rehearsed it, I knew where the point was where the laughter should come. Norman was such a good audience behind the camera; he was crying and laughing.”
Topol has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, including Cast a Giant Shadow, Before Winter Comes, The Public Eye, Galileo, The House on Garibaldi Street, Flash Gordon, For Your Eyes Only, Winds of War, War and Remembrance, and his own weekly shows on the BBC, It’s Topol and Topol’s Israel.
“It’s a different technique. Instead of trying to scream to the last row in the balcony, you can be very quiet because the microphone is above your head and you can whisper the line. And the camera is one meter, two meters away from you. The technique can be adjusted easily and it is obviously the job of the director to say, ‘Topol, you are pushing too hard,’ or ‘Give a little more.’”
“The main thing is what you do with the part, with the character, what have you constructed, where do you go with it, where do you come from,” he said.
For NJ theatergoers, Topol is coming from Minneapolis, and he’s bringing his role of a lifetime with him.