WHEN Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in September 1964, it was hailed as an instant classic of the musical theatre and it went on to run for more than 3,000 performances.
Bock and Harnick’s magnificent score – including such standards as If I Were A Rich Man, Matchmaker Matchmaker, Sunrise Sunset, To Life and Tradition – and Joseph Stein’s adaptation of the short stories by Sholem Aleichem perfectly captured life in a Jewish shtetl or small town in early 20th century Tsarist Russia.
The hero of the tales is Tevye, the dairyman, who is much troubled by the need to find suitable husbands for his five daughters. In London, Tevye was played by the Israeli actor (Chaim) Topol who became closely associated with the part but it was played originally in New York by the great Zero Mostel.
Now following in these giant footsteps is Paul Michael Glaser, actor, director, poet and now author, whose connection with the show stretches back to the 1960’s. How did he come to be involved in this new production?
“The producers got in touch with my agent in England and asked – would I be interested in playing Tevye? I said I’d love to do it. What’s not to like about playing such a part? I’ve never seen the complete show (although I knew the movie version of course) so I’m not as familiar with Fiddler on the Roof as I thought I was. Studying the script, parts of it came back to me.
What does Paul mean when he says that he’d never seen the complete show?
“I was a young actor, doing a play in New York with the British actor Donald Pleasence,” he explains.
“We were appearing at a venue next to the theatre where Fiddler on the Roof was playing – the two stage doors were opposite to each other. I happened to be seeing a girl in the Fiddler company and since my show finished about 10 minutes before the end of Fiddler, I’d quickly get changed and meet this young lady and we’d stand in the wings and watch the last five minutes of the performance every night.”
The romance may not have lasted but the connection with Fiddler on the Roof was maintained when Paul was cast as the tutor and Bolshevik revolutionary Perchik who falls in love with Hodel, Tevye’s second daughter, in the 1971 film version of the musical.
“For years, I’d find myself humming a tune and it would be a song from Fiddler on the Roof,” reveals Paul.
You could argue that Fiddler on the Roof is largely a feel-good show but one that takes on a darker edge with the theme of Jewish persecution in the infamous Tsarist pogroms. Why does the piece have such global appeal?
“For one thing, it has an amazing score,” argues Paul.
“For another, it’s a universal story which everyone can understand. It’s about the everyday problems which we all have and how we manage to deal with them, how we achieve a certain sense of well-being. But it also means a great deal to Jewish people in particular. It’s a tale told by Tevye the milkman, a story that reflects Jewish history in a very poignant way, in particular about the Jewish diaspora, the scattering of the Jews around the world. But it also celebrates the spirit of mankind and the desire to identify with one particular group. Tevye is a gigantic part. I’m really enjoying getting into training to play the role. It’s also given me an excuse to grow a beard.”
Although Paul has added film directing (he has made five features including The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and now writing to his skill set, he began as an actor. What inspired him to go on the stage?
“I think that my mother had ambitions to have a career as an actress, as did the younger of my two sisters. Acting for me was a way of finding out who I was. To my mind, acting, the playing of a character, has always been a process of taking off masks rather than putting them on. As a young man, I didn’t have a clue who I was and I thought that acting was going to help me find out. At my age (70), I’m fortunate in having a sense of myself which permeates everything I do.”
In 1975, Paul landed a leading role opposite David Soul in the seminal police series Starsky and Hutch. It ran for a further four years and it established both men as international stars. Actors can often become resentful when a character they played on television or in the cinema overshadows everything else they have done in their careers. How does Paul feel about Starsky and Hutch these days?
“I think that it finally dawned on me that I was always going to be associated with the series and I have made peace with that fact,” explains Paul.
“I was too much on the inside of Starsky and Hutch to be able to have the necessary perspective to analyse the show and say why it was so successful. People said that the show worked because of the chemistry between David and me and I’m proud of what we achieved.
“Both David and I wanted to do a really good job with Starsky and Hutch but we were working for an organisation which told us that we’d be fortunate to make three or four good programmes out of the 20/25 we made. David and I felt that the proportion between good and bad should be reversed – 20 good ones and only a handful of bad ones. We worked hard to achieve some degree of truth in our relationship.
“Starsky was a very interesting character and I was able to play him on so many different levels. I was able to explore a whole range of possibilities with him.”
Paul enjoys directing films – “there are so many avenues for your creativity to shine” – but he also seems to have rediscovered his love of the stage. He’s been a frequent visitor to these shores over the years but latterly it’s been for professional reasons as well, playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan in Bromley and giving his Abanazar in Aladdin in Sunderland. Both characters, dyed-in-the-wool rotters, must have been immense fun to play.
“The stage is the actor’s medium and acting on stage is something I’ve started to wrap my arms around; I’m so fond of it,” says Paul.
“I’d describe it as riding the wave of energy which comes from a live audience. One of the reasons I agreed to play Captain Hook and Abanazar was the interaction with the audience. It seemed to me to reflect the spirit of traditional American vaudeville, which was the equivalent of music hall in the UK. I loved playing the role of Captain Hook and having the opportunity to walk to the edge of the stage, stare at the children and growl at them – Excuse me. Did you say something?”
Paul has recently published his first book, a fantasy adventure called Chrystallia and The Source of Light, which is intended primarily but not exclusively for young adult readers. It tells the story of teenage Maggie and her younger brother Jesse trying to deal with the loss of their mother through their adventures in a mysterious realm. It has clearly been a labour of love for Paul.
“Although it’s the story of a teenage girl, I really wrote it for the child in all of us and it’s a story which the whole family can share. It wasn’t difficult to find Maggie’s voice – I have a daughter who was about Maggie’s age when I was writing the book. I really enjoyed being able to describe this world of crystals and minerals which I researched a lot. When you’ve invented your own world, it’s up to you to make the rules. The only problem is wanting to break them once you’ve made them. And as opposed to acting or directing, when you’re writing, you don’t need anybody else to help you.”
At this stage of his career and with so much happening in his life, Paul can take a more relaxed, almost fatalistic attitude to work. “I’m happy to wait until the right thing comes along,” he says. “I don’t have a list of parts which I want to play but I have always enjoyed My Fair Lady. Perhaps I’ll be asked to do Henry Higgins one day.”
Paul is obviously also intending to have plenty of R&R as the tour makes its way around the country. “I hope I’ll have time to play a little golf on some of the English and Scottish courses close to where we’ll be doing the show,” he wonders. “Not forgetting a little fishing as well.”
Fiddler on the Roof will be performing from Tuesday, September 17 until Saturday, September 21 at Theatre Royal, Nottingham. Tickets are available by calling 0115 989 5555 or logging on to www.trch.co.uk