Fierstein Fires Up ‘Fiddler’


By Masha Leon

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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Crooner Julius La Rosa (!), film star Danny Kaye and comic Alan King were among those considered in 1964 for the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” notes Carol Ilson in her 1989 biography, “Harold Prince — From ‘Pajama Game’ to ‘Phantom of the Opera’” (UMI Research Press). In the end, Prince’s choice, Zero Mostel, became the template against whom all future Tevye’s would be measured. In 1965, after Mostel’s nine-month contract came up for renewal, writes Ilson: “Prince didn’t want to meet the actor’s terms… [it was] agreed to let Mostel go and see what was drawing people to the box office — the star or the show… ‘Fiddler’’s continued success without Mostel gave them the answer. Luther Adler, Herschel Bernardi, Harry Goz, Jerry Jarrett, Jan Peerce and Paul Lipson took on the role of Tevye on Broadway — all to the applause of packed houses.” The parade of Tevyes continued with Topol, Theodore Bikel, Alfred Molina and now — the latest and most surprising Tevye — Harvey Fierstein.

Fresh from his success as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” (for which he won a Tony), gravely voiced Fierstein — who never has had a wife, nor daughters who broke his heart — transforms himself into a Tevye that Sholom Aleichem would have applauded. Keeping the best of the original intact, director David Leveaux’s beautifully nuanced changes gives the production new energy.

Opening night at the Minskoff Theatre, in the row behind me sat the kvelling “Fiddler” triumvirate: Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book). ’twas my eighth “Fiddler” (including two Topols — one in London — and two Molinas), yet I was as enchanted and teary-eyed as though this were a first encounter with the world that was Anatevka.

From the Czarist pogrom finale of “Fiddler,” it was on to the Romanoff splendor of the FireBird Restaurant for the post-opening-night party crush. As waiters passed trays of chocolate truffles and madeleines (Marcel Proust’s memory-eliciting cookies noted in his memoir, “Remembrance of Things Past”), I chatted, between nibbles, with legendary theater attorney Floria Lasky; “Fiddler” producers Stewart Lane and Bonnie Comley; Anne Jackson and husband Eli Wallach; sexy, glamorous Andrea Martin (“That’s Golda!” someone marveled), and Tevye’s sons-in-law Perchik (Robert Petkoff portrays the revolutionary who ends up in Siberia) and Motel (John Cariani, whose side-splitting portrayal of timid Motel the tailor is worthy of the Singer Sewing Machine award, if there were one).

* * *

“Analyze this!” I told analyst Arnold Richards (former editor of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association) after seeing Primary Stages’ production of Willy Holtzman’s play “Sabina.” The work is based on the life of Sabina Spielrein, who had a profound impact on Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and the course of psychoanalysis. We first meet Sabina (Marin Ireland) as a catatonic, white-gowned patient of Jung (Victor Slezak), with whom she might later have had an affair. Cured (was she or wasn’t she raped in a pogrom in Rostov?), she subsequently enchants Sigmund Freud (Peter Strauss). And by the second act, wearing a drop-dead-gorgeous black-beaded gown, Sabina is not only lucid, but she also begins to outpace the masters.

Richards, in private practice (and a member of the board of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research), told me: “Freud was less sexist than some of his followers…. This little Jewish girl from Rostov, Russia, had a profound imprint on Freud the Jew and Jung the gentile…. She was connected with the most important psychiatrists of the 20th century…. Her paper, “On the Psychological Content of a Case of Schizophrenia,” was the first psychoanalytically oriented dissertation by a woman… published in 1911 as the head article in the leading German yearbook, of which Jung was editor in chief.

Richards amplified: “She came from a well-to-do family; finished the Gymnazium in Rostov with the highest honor, a gold medal. Fluent in Russian, German, English and French and [probably] Yiddish…. Freud gives her credit for his ideas about the death instinct, and others credit her with the inspiration for Jung’s concept of anima…. By the time Anna Freud published her first paper, Spielrein had [already] published 25 [plus] 10 on child psychoanalytic themes.”

In 1923-24 Spielrein returned to Rostov from Berlin. “According to her niece,” Richards said, “she had the idea that she would treat and cure Lenin. But Lenin had died.” In the play, Sabina describes the horror of how she and her two daughters are burned with other Jews by the Germans in a synagogue in Rostov. “Unlike other members of the family who fled to Moscow, Spielrein chose to stay in Rostov.” Richards noted: “There’s the story that when she and her daughters were being herded by the Germans to a pit to be shot, she allegedly turned from the line to a German soldier and said, ‘How can you do this if you speak the language of Goethe?’” Stalin murdered her brothers.

Throughout the play I was uncomfortable with the plethora of Jewish and Yiddish asides. Would Sabina have sung the Yiddish lullaby shlof mayn kind, shlof keseyder (sleep my little one, keep on sleeping) while in treatment? Would Jung have said to Freud, “The little Jewess loves the Jew-hater Wagner”? Would Sabina have asked Freud, “You want Jung to be your shabbes goy?” At one point in the play, Freud/Strauss says of Jung, “He is a little meshugene.” Was this a grammatical error — meshugene defines a crazy woman — or was this a Freudian slip? In any event, get off the couch and go see this well-acted, intelligent play.

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