FIDDLER ON THE ROOF * Book by Joseph Stein * Music by Jerry Bock * Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick * Direction by David Leveaux *  Minskoff Theatre, New York City 

The initial announcement rocked the New York theater world: when British stage and screen star Alfred Molina left the hit Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, the role of Tevye would be taken over by gay icon Harvey Fierstein. Virtually everybody had a three-step reaction. The first was to treat it as an outrageous joke: the most beloved Jewish hero in Broadway musical history played by the writer and star of Torch Song Trilogy, book writer of La Cage aux Folles, and drag co-star of Hairspray?!? Quickly followed by: and the problem with that is…what, exactly? And finally: how cool! It’s certainly been a publicity coup for the show. Whenever an established star tries something new – Nicole Kidman or Madonna takes on a play, for instance, or Linda Ronstadt sings opera -- it gets people buzzing. But really, who else has the charisma and star power to pull off Tevye? As the 50-year-old Brooklyn-born actor was quick to note in interviews, his last role on Broadway was a 300-pound Baltimore housewife, so a middle-aged Jewish man is hardly a stretch.

Nevertheless, it’s a proud moment for the man who made gay history with Torch Song Trilogy. More than a decade before Angels in America or Will and Grace, Fierstein worked his way up from Off-Off- Broadway’s La Mama to the Great White Way with a four-hour show in which he played a drag performer who’s jilted by a bisexual lover, loses his next boyfriend to a gay-bashing, raises an adopted gay son, and teaches his mother a thing or two about family values. Torch Song’s Arnold Beckstein was one of those larger-than-life, vaudevillean, talk-to-the-audience characters, not unlike Tevye or Dolly Levi, just without the orchestra. 

In addition to his unapologetically out-there gay persona, the three-year Broadway run and subsequent movie of Torch Song introduced the world to that voice. When I first interviewed Fierstein for The Advocate in 1978 (before some of today’s readers were born), I asked him how he got his unique, obviously damaged rasp. Swearing on a pack of Benson and Hedges, he said, "I was in a play called Xircus, The Private Life of Jesus Christ and had to do a five-page monologue over a recording of Kate Smith singing 'God Bless America' played at top volume over eight-foot speakers. The director refused to turn down the volume -- and I wanted every word heard!"

That voice was the most worrisome thing about imagining Fierstein in Fiddler. Could his trademark croak handle the score? Having seen the show now, I can only say it never pays to underestimate Harvey Fierstein. True, his singing and dancing would never stack up against Tony Bennett or Tommy Tune, but you’d never want to see either of them play Tevye. 

Under David Leveaux’s keen direction Fierstein has created a fresh and honest characterization that’s all his own. He brings to the role a veteran standup performer’s impeccable comic timing and ease at addressing a large audience intimately. And no matter how easy it is to make fun of, that voice is his secret weapon as an actor. It’s surprisingly supple, and he draws on its full range to find more colors to Tevye than you remember. As the small-town milkman in turn-of- the-century Russia forced to question all the traditions on which his identity is based, he is by turns gruff, sly, exasperated, clownish, and – especially when his faith is challenged – ferocious. 

Leveaux’s iconoclastic production was considered controversial when it first opened, because of its minimalist design (Chekhovian bare trees, orchestra onstage, not a house in sight) and lack of stereotypical Jewish folksiness. But controversy is not a bad thing when it encourages theatergoers to consider the contemporary resonance of a classic. If Fierstein’s presence brings additional meaning to the scenes where Tevye’s daughters challenge traditional definitions of marriage, and if that helps you see these Russian Jews as related to displaced people around the globe today, then this really does become a Fiddler for our time.

The Advocate, March 1, 2005