“I’ve done a fair amount of Shakespeare, and Tevye is up there with Hamlet and other great roles,” he says of the beleaguered patriarch he brings to life. “What characters like these go through is so vast. The emotional range, what he gets to experience in three hours, is unlike so many roles, in that it’s as high as it can be, and it’s as low as it can be. The role itself is incredibly in demanding.”
“As with Shakespeare,” he continues, “you approach the role in the shadow of so many great people who have gone before you. And yet, each individual actor feels the freedom to endow the role with personal, inspired choices.”
“Tevye is an everyman,” Mr. Skybell reflects, “despite being so specifically placed in history and locale and religion. There’s something about the character that causes everyone to identify with it, and see themselves reflected in it. He is obviously buffeted by life, but never completely defeated. He is a survivor, and there is enormous value in seeing that even in the worst of times, or the most impossible situation, it is possible to at least get by. This gives people hope.”
“The first time I played Tevye I was 17, and the second time I was 22,” he recalls. “So an actor in this situation asks himself, ‘do I lay into what I know, or do I try to find my own way?’ All these years later, it’s wonderful to have a role that is a late-middle-aged protagonist, which is a rare opportunity in musical theater. I’m very eager to see how my understanding of the role has shifted in 40 years. I’m hopeful and can only imagine that my life experience is going to inform the role in a way that wasn’t the case when I was 17. I suppose that I would tell my 17-year-old version of Tevye, ‘you can sit back a little, and embody Tevye moment to moment.’ I think I’m at a point where I can just be, and not necessarily have to play.”
Actor Steven Skybell: “Tevye is up there with Hamlet and other great roles. What characters like these to go through is so vast. The emotional range, what he gets to experience in three hours, is unlike so many roles, in that it’s as high as it can be, and it’s as low as it can be.”
“I grew up in Lubbock, Texas — a small town that was not unlike a shtetl,” he recalls, only half joking. “My grandparents on my father’s side lived in the same town, so we had a Sabbath table every Friday night. As a child, I heard Yiddish spoken by my grandparents. But it was always used as a way to prevent my generation from understanding what they were saying.”
“Later in life, in my 30s, my brother and I started learning Yiddish together, as something we wanted to do,” Mr. Skybell recalls. “Then, about ten years ago, I was touring with Wicked, and we were going to be in Chicago for six months, so I contacted a professor at Northwestern University, and she gave me weekly lessons in her home.”
All of which made him a natural choice when the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theater company, and the longest consecutively producing theater troupe of any kind in the United States, decided to mount a new production of the classic show, but this time in the language that Tevye and his family would have spoken in the fictional village of Anatevka.
“I cannot overstate the specific challenge and opportunity of performing this play in Yiddish,” Mr. Skybell says. “Returning this story to its Yiddish beginnings gives new life to it.” “Fiddler on the Roof” was originally based on a series of stories about a character called Tevye the Dairyman, written in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem. Returning to the language of the source material that inspired the play infuses the NYTF production with a fresh vitality and authenticity.
Part of that authenticity derives from a topical relevance that makes the play’s more somber moments impossible to ignore. “The scene where the Constable comes and tells the residents of Anatevka that they will have to leave has a greater immediacy than we ever thought it could. It’s not a history lesson pointing to 150 years ago; it’s something happening right now. Refugees and diaspora are things still going on today.”
“Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, you felt like, ‘we’re safe now, as Jews.’ But that’s not necessarily the case for everybody. In the sweep of history, you may think you’re the center of your own musical. But then one day you’re told you have to leave, which you may not imagined was even a possibility. So ‘Fiddler’ has become a cautionary tale, in a way that nobody could have predicted.
“A few months ago,” Mr. Skybell recalls, “I saw a middle-school production of ‘Fiddler,’ because a friend’s son was in the been cast. Afterward, one of the teacher’s announced that they don’t usually stage musicals with sad endings, but I don’t believe that ‘Fiddler’s’ ending is genuinely sad. That last moment when Tevye says to the fiddler, ‘come with me,’ represents hope. The hope that no matter where one has to go, you can hold on to the things that make life good. That’s the tonic that makes the show such joy and a celebration of life.”
“Fiddler on The Roof” performances run now through September 2, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place, near First Place), which is the new home of NYTF. The show is presented in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles. Tickets are priced at $75 and up. For tickets or for more information, please browse www.NYTF.org or call 866-811-4111.