Chaim Topol first played the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” over 30 years ago. For just eight performances, one of the most famous Israeli actors is in Pittsburgh portraying the milkman he has come to identify with for so long.
While Zero Mostel first played Tevye when “Fiddler” opened on Broadway in 1964, it was 1967 when Topol first belted out on stage the word that became synonymous with him — tradition! He went on to star in the movie version of “Fiddler” in 1971 and became the first Israeli actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. Since then, Topol has toured with “Fiddler” all over the world.
The Jewish Chronicle got a chance to talk with Topol about his role of a lifetime, Tevye, and what it’s meant to him.
CHRONICLE: How many times have you performed “Fiddler on the Roof?”
TOPOL: I would guess it’s been over 2,500 shows. But that’s just the play. The movie has been seen by millions of people and each time I’m playing Tevye. But no matter how many times I perform, I love each and every one of them.
CHRONICLE: Which did you enjoy doing more, the live theater version or the movie of “Fiddler?”
Topol: I enjoyed both parts. It doesn’t matter which medium. I enjoy every night when I do Fiddler on stage. It’s one of the best-written parts for a male actor/singer. Every night I’m on stage with this part I thank God for this part and the privilege to be chosen to do it.
The big difference (besides theater being live) is on a movie set you have microphones right above your head, when I’m on stage I have to make sure I reach the people in the back row. On stage I have to sweat and cry and sing every night; the movie runs by itself every time.
CHRONICLE: What has been the biggest change in theater over the past 30 years?
TOPOL: When I started singing it was in London in 1967, and on stage we had an orchestra of 26 pieces in the pit. We were on stage, but there wasn’t a microphone in site. Now I can tell you that every member of the cast is equipped with a microphone. So it’s a completely different performance.
Before microphones there were people with beautiful voices who couldn’t act because you couldn’t hear them. Today those microphones enhance their voices and they can now act.
CHRONICLE: What is your favorite song in “Fiddler on the Roof?”
TOPOL: They’re not really songs, they’re scenes. I would say that most of the songs in “Fiddler” are really theatrical scenes. You have people singing to each other, but it’s dialogue and those people are talking to each other. Yes you can sing them as songs, but you really act it and be the character and keep within the character and go on with the scene.
My favorite scene is “If I were a rich man.” It’s a dialogue between Tevye and the almighty. It’s kind of a dream that he goes through about what he would do if he were a rich man. He would seek the studies and learn for seven hours a day and that would be the sweetest thing of all.
That’s the importance of the scene. We all know that people want to live better. The question is what do you consider better. That’s what I love about it.
CHRONICLE: How much longer are you going to play the role of Tevye?
TOPOL: I don’t know. They might ask me to do it in five years time, I’d be glad to do it again. I was 35 when I did the movie, I’m 73 now but I love it just the same.
CHRONICLE: If you had a nickel every time you have said the word, “tradition,” how much money would you have?
TOPOL: (chuckles) I probably say the word somewhere between 20-25 times during a performance. If you take that number and multiply it by 2,500 that’s how many nickels I would have. So that’s the magic number.
(Mike Zoller can be reached at email@example.com.)