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Forward 50 2018

Joel Grey

He Put The Yidl Into “Fiddler”

Joel Grey, 86, who won an Oscar for his performance in “Cabaret,” has an enviable reputation as a performer. His directorial accomplishments, on the other hand, while impressive, have been relatively few and far between.

So he was somewhat surprised when he received a call from Zalmen Mlotek, musical director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, inviting him to direct the Folksbiene’s forthcoming production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Joel told Zalmen he’d have to think about it. The next day, Joel had decided: “Having long been an admirer of the show, when Zalmen invited me to direct for the first time ever in the United States a Yiddish version that originated in Israel, I could only say ‘Yes!’”

There was, however, a possible problem. Joel thought that the invitation might be withdrawn when Zalmen learned that he does not speak Yiddish. (The Yiddish translation, by the way, is by the Israeli actor, director and translator, Shraga Friedman.) But this didn’t trouble Zalmen at all. When it came to casting the show, Joel realized that it would be foolhardy to look for a complement of actors who could speak Yiddish, so he cast the show with accomplished performers, had them learn the show in English and then relearn it in Yiddish. Obviously, this was a difficult procedure for everyone.

The major casting problem, as with all productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” was the finding the actor to play the central character, Tevye. Happily, Joel had already worked with Steven Skybell and knew that he would make a splendid Tevye. The results were worth the effort. The production has been enthusiastically received; the run of the show has been extended several times, and will be moving Off-Broadway to Stage 42 in February.

— Sheldon Harnick

Sheldon Harnick is a lyricist who won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’

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