April 15, 2010 at 4:47 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Fierstein fired up for ‘Fiddler’

Susan Cella (Golde) and Harvey Fierstein (Tevye) star in the National Theatre’s “Fiddler on the Roof.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of National Theatre)

If you missed him on Broadway, now’s your chance to see gay icon Harvey Fierstein in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Once again, Fierstein has grown out his grey beard and picked up his pail to play Tevye the milkman in the North American tour of the much-loved musical (at National Theatre through May 2).

Based on stories by Shalom Aleichem, “Fiddler” is the tale of religious Jew Tevye, his wife Golde, and their five daughters, grappling with family, tradition and hard times in Tsarist Russia. Tony Award-winning Fierstein brings humor, pathos and political edge to the legendary role: “It’s wonderful entertainment and means a lot to a lot of people including my family,” he explains. “But it’s important to remember that behind the familiar songs are some serious, relevant issues like ethnic cleansing. I keep that in mind.”

All good interviews require preparation. But when it comes to Fierstein, rules don’t apply. In his unmistakably gravelly voice, Fierstein says what needs to be said, scarcely pausing for a breath: “While many actors have played Tevye, the interpretation of the role hadn’t changed much since the show’s debut in 1964,” he explains. “Through the course of the show, I move Tevye away from the fundamentalist we meet when the curtain comes up. As he gets closer to leaving his little village for America, he becomes more open to the world. It’s good change. Fundamentalism is death.”

When it was announced that Fierstein would be replacing Alfred Molina as Tevye the milkman in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2005, some skeptics were unsure about his taking on the role. How could the guy who’d recently won a Tony for his star turn as plus-sized, Baltimore housewife Edna Turnblad in the musical “Hairspray,” pull off an Orthodox Jewish patriarch living on the shtetl? The always direct Fierstein was, not surprisingly, undeterred: “Anyone who tells me that I can’t play a part, I tell them f-you.”

“Tevye is one of the seminal roles in the musical theater canon — he’s the male equivalent to Gypsy’s Mama Rose,” notes Fierstein, 57. “Before agreeing to take the part, I consulted a friend who advised, ‘You can either play Tevye, or spend the rest of your life telling everyone that you were once offered the part, but passed on it.’ Of course, I had to accept.”

Fierstein’s only trepidation was that “Fiddler’s” composers — Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — might not approve of him singing their songs. In true bravura fashion, Fierstein arranged to sing the show’s entire score (including “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Do You Love Me?”) for the “boys,” as he endearingly calls the musical team. The boys liked what they heard and Fierstein never looked back. He famously tackled Tevye, bringing his colossal presence to the part and earning some darn good reviews in the process.

Born in Brooklyn, Fierstein made his acting debut in Andy Warhol’s only play, “Pork,” and rose to fame in 1982 with his semi-autobiographical work “Torch Song Trilogy” in which he played Arnold, a torch song Jewish drag queen in search of love and family. He also, among other things, wrote the libretto for the mega-successful musical “La Cage aux Folles.”

Despite being busy with other projects, Fierstein jumped at the opportunity to join the North American tour last October and reprise his performance. “What can I say? It’s a great part, and I’m enjoying touring with a big cast. I’d never done that before.”

What’s up next for the remarkable Fierstein? At the time of this interview, the “Fiddler” tour was on a three-week break prior to opening in D.C. Instead of resting at his home in Connecticut, Fierstein was working in New York City putting finishing touches on a Broadway revival of “La Cage” opening this month. He’s also currently working on the book for stage adaptation of Disney’s “Newsies,” and collaborating with Cyndi Lauper on an as yet undisclosed musical theater project. “I’m a longtime fan of Cyndi’s but never did I know she could morph into a Broadway composer. Believe me,” Fierstein loudly assures, “people are going to be bowled over.”

‘Fiddler on the Roof’
Through May 2
National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W.
Tickets start at $51.50

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