When the great Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem created Tevye the Dairyman in a series of short stories first published in 1884, he never could have imagined that 80 years on, Tevye would become an iconic character of stage and screen. It nearly didn’t happen, because some producers originally considered the story and characters of Fiddler on the Roof “too Jewish” for Broadway theatergoers’ tender sensibilities. But the creators of the show —Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book) — along with director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and lead producer Hal Prince, persevered.
You probably know the rest: It opened in 1964 and went on to run the table winning nine Tony awards (best musical, lead actor, featured actress, producer, director, score, book, choreography, and costume design). The 1971 film version of the musical won three Academy Awards (best score adaptation, cinematography, and sound) and was the highest grossing film of the year. The story may have been about a Jewish milkman and his little village of Anatevka, but its themes were universal: love, family, home, tradition, humor, and loss.
The late, great Zero Mostel originated the role of Tevye the Dairyman in the original 1964 production and went on to reprise the role in the 1976 Broadway revival. But he’s got nothing on Broadway vet Steven Skybell, who plays Tevye in the upcoming Chicago Lyric Opera production of Fiddler on the Roof. He first played the role in 1979 at the tender age of 17 in a production at the National Music Camp at Interlochen; his second pass at Tevye was as an undergrad at Yale in 1983. He appeared as Lazar Wolf in the 2016 Broadway revival opposite Danny Burstein as Tevye, and then got the opportunity of a lifetime to play Tevye in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Yiddish version of Fiddler (Fidler Afn Dakh) directed by the great Joel Grey in 2018, which was presented with English and Russian subtitles and played to sold out performances at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown before transferring to Stage 42 in midtown.
“I finally got cast again as Tevye, and it was in Yiddish!” enthuses Skybell. “But what was meant to be a six-week run, and what I thought would be just a challenging curiosity caught fire with the public.” Skybell went on to win a 2019 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical for that performance, and the production won Drama Desk and outer Critic Circle Awards for Outstanding Revival of a Musical. (Of the Yiddish production, no less than original producer Hal Prince himself said, “If you have seen Fiddler before, you must see this production because it will make you feel you are seeing Fiddler for the first time.”) Skybell will reprise his award-winning role in the Yiddish Fiddler when it reopens in November at NYC’s New World Stages.
And now, post-pandemic, Skybell takes to the Lyric Opera’s huge stage for his first go at the English-speaking Tevye as an adult. “Having played Tevye in Yiddish, I find that playing Tevye in English — now age appropriate — is a revelation for me,” shares Skybell. “I never dreamed it would be on such an operatic scale! There is a 40-person chorus that sings on a few of the songs, including Sunrise, Sunset and Anatevka. You won’t see a production on so grand a scale on Broadway because it’s prohibitively expensive.”
And what a production this is. Helmed by Barrie Kosky, one of the world’s leading opera directors and the originator of this operatic staging back in 2017 at the Komische Oper Berlin, the scale is grand indeed: the full Lyric Opera Orchestra; the previously mentioned chorus, 40 strong; and a cast of musical theater and opera regulars. “It even snows on stage during the second act, as one can do on an operatic stage, but it enhances the story rather than overpowering it,” shares Skybell.
Skybell has long felt a strong connection to the material. He was born and raised in Lubbock, Texas, the youngest of four kids in a small Jewish community. His grandfather, a Polish emigré, lived nearby, and together they celebrated the Sabbath every Friday, watching him light the candles and say the prayers. It was, says Skybell, “a very Jewish upbringing in a very un-Jewish part of Texas.”
“I wanted to be an actor from as early as I can remember. My first brush with Fiddler came in 1971 when my temple rented out the Winchester Theatre in Lubbock to show the opening night of the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof with Topol as Tevye. It was a very powerful moment for a husky Jewish boy in West Texas to see that a pudgy Jewish boy could actually be the lead in a musical. It was very empowering,” says Skybell.
His parents weren’t so sure. “[They] nearly plotzed when I declared myself a theater studies major,” laughs Skybell. “At Yale, there was a lot of critical thinking about text and plays; we had dramaturg training as well as on-stage. A unique theatrical education. It left a yearning for intense conservatory training, so I went to Yale School of Drama [for grad school] and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. My last shows at the Yale Rep were O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey into Night with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, which then transferred to Broadway, so I graduated and was performing on Broadway a week later!”
A long illustrious career has ensued, and Skybell has worked on stage, TV, and screen with Mark Rylance, Vanessa Redgrave, Tim Robbins, Ana Gasteyer, Ben Vereen, and many more. The last time Skybell performed in Chicago was in 2005 when the theatrical phenomenon Wicked first opened a residency here. He played the role of Dr. Dillamond, a Goat who taught history to Elphaba and Glinda at Shiz University. After six months, the role opened up in the Broadway cast and he moved back to NYC and played the part for two and a half years. That role had extra meaning as his husband, Michael Cole, has worked for famed composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz for 28 years. “And I owe it to Michael that I got the part in Yiddish Fiddler,” says Skybell. “He saw the announcement on Facebook. I never, ever pursue roles. It’s just not me. But this one time, I called my agent and he got me in to be seen. I had worked with [director] Joel Grey before, and I had a familiarity with Yiddish. That worked in my favor.”
Now he’s back as Tevye, the role he was born to play, but now on the opera stage. “As much as I connected to the part back at Interlochen, I had to pretend to be old Tevye,” muses Skybell. “Now, which is so wonderful, I’ve discovered there is a resilience to Tevye, a childlike response to the world, that I’m seeing now through the eyes of an adult. As unwilling as Tevye is to move forward, he is experiencing some deep changes. In the middle of the second act, to say to his wife, ‘is love something that we can even talk about?’ It’s extraordinary. This middle-aged couple are finding what their relationship can be, even though they’ve never examined it. When doing Yiddish Fiddler, we worked through the Tree of Life Synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh, and antisemitic incidences in Brooklyn. And of course, the landscape of this musical is Ukraine. The delight of Fiddler is it is gangbuster entertainment. But the creators, from Sholem Aleichem in the original Yiddish stories, to Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, and Jerome Robbins, made it so relevant and timeless. It’s about family, yes, but it’s also about Jews in the world. There’s a message to be heard about tolerance, and the desire for peace in a world that keeps fomenting disagreements.”
Fiddler on the Roof runs September 17 – October 7 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For tickets, visit lyricopera.org.
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Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.