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Inside the Painful but Joyous Tradition of Taking On Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Alfred Molina, Harvey Fierstein and current revival star Danny Burstein discuss the beloved musical's titanic lead role.

Days before opening night of the latest Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, lead actor Danny Burstein suffered an onstage injury.

“I slam a door and say, ‘Let’s go!’ But the other day, they built a new door with an extra door jamb, and I slammed my finger into it, and it turned purple,” he explained. “Normally, you’d be able to go backstage and get ice or sit down, but I was onstage for the next 20 minutes of the show. It’s relentless! But in the best possible way, because it has the greatest payoff emotionally.”

Incidents like that one tend to be part of the package for actors taking on the role of Tevye, the poor Jewish milkman who philosophizes with God as his daughters approach marriage and his community faces persecution. For example, Harvey Fierstein famously led the last Broadway revival 10 years ago while suffering a hernia for a year; he only got surgery after his 2005 run wrapped. “I didn’t want to stop playing the role to take care of it, so I had to be stuffed into those pants sideways every time!” he said, now laughing about the painful daily ritual.

Alfred Molina was haunted by persistent insomnia during his 2004 star turn. “There was this huge sense of elation and exhaustion after each night, kind of like feeling weary in your bones,” he recalled. “I’d be up for hours. I would only fall asleep very late or early in the morning, and then I’d stay in bed for as late as I could to catch up.”

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When told of Molina’s ailments at the time, Burstein laughed, recounting his own sleepless nights while leading the current Bartlett Sher revival. “Alfred, hell yes! Oh my god, it’s been terrible! I toss and turn all night!” he said. “You have to put yourself in that situation that Tevye is going through. It plays with your emotions — you really feel vulnerable, and you take it home with you, as much as you try not to. It’s a huge responsibility, and that takes its toll on you.”

Specific in its milieu and yet universal in its themes, the classic show features a book by Joseph Stein based on stories by Sholem Aleichem, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. The expansive arc covered by Tevye sees the character dancing and delivering laughs one minute during numbers like “If I Were a Rich Man,” and baring his broken heart the next in songs like “Chavaleh” and “Anatevka.” The three actors simultaneously described the role — originated by Zero Mostel in 1964 and later played onstage and onscreen by Topol — as “emotionally very difficult,” “heartbreaking” and “an upward climb,” as well as “absolutely magical,” “beautiful” and “brilliant.”

The following are edited excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter’s conversations with Molina, Fierstein and Burstein about the demanding journey of playing Tevye:

FIERSTEIN: The role of Tevye is an emotionally very difficult role, but absolutely magical. It reaches the height of joy and the depths of despair in those few hours. Here is a man who at the opening of the show believes in God, his best friend, the only male in his life that he can talk to. His wife, he has five daughters, his cow — they’re all female! By the end of the show, he doesn’t talk to God anymore. God is a luxury he can’t afford. Not only does he lose his daughters, but he loses his best friend, he loses his way of life. That’s quite a journey. It’s incredibly painful to play that role, and yet there’s no joy as great as that role because it’s so painful.

“It’s so f—ing human, so honest that it speaks to everyone,” said Harvey Fierstein of playing Tevye in 2005.

MOLINA: It’s such a brilliant role, and it completely consumed my life. It’s hard work — Tevye is in practically every scene. As a younger actor, I tended to go metaphorically running to the part, just tons of energy and, “Yeah, let’s go!” But you’ve got hours in front of you every night, sometimes twice a day, of an upward climb, and you learn how to pace yourself. During the first few weeks of previews, I was halfway through the show, thinking, “Why am I so exhausted?” There are a lot of big, big songs and I’ve never quite felt so consumed by a job, in the best possible way. Not like a burden, but just thinking about it 24/7 and being excited to go to work every day and excited to do it again. I came offstage every night feeling as high as a kite, so proud of us.

BURSTEIN: I love this show. It’s a masterpiece. The hardest thing about the role is the stamina. It’s not just physical stamina — even though I’m onstage for three hours, except for 13 minutes — and the concentration that it takes. But it’s the emotional going-there that you have to do every single night. It’s heartbreaking. You really feel like his heart is being torn out of his chest when he has to say goodbye to his daughters. I have two sons who are 22 and 19, and you have to put yourself in that situation that Tevye is going through. It plays with your emotions — you really feel vulnerable, and you take it home with you, as much as you try not to. It’s a huge responsibility, and that takes its toll on you. I’m hoping in the course of the run, it gets easier.

“I’m unbelievably lucky,” said Danny Burstein of leading the current revival.

MOLINA: In the context of history, when they are each going off to their various places and destinies at the end, you know what that destiny was in many of the cases. So it has this huge emotional context. You carry that all throughout the evening. Afterward, I would watch some really trivial TV. I’d pour myself a glass of wine and watch reruns of The Brady Bunch or something so far away from what I had just done, just to clear my head.

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FIERSTEIN: I think it’s the most perfect show. It tells such a huge and universal story. It touches you differently as an adult than as a college student; it speaks to you when you’re rebelling against your family and when you’re a parent and the culture you think you grew up with is gone. And it plays no differently in Atlanta than it does in midtown Manhattan. It’s so f—ing human, so honest that it speaks to everyone.

MOLINA: A friend of mine from India came to see the play and was in absolute tears by the end. She came backstage and said, ‘I couldn’t get over it. It’s so Indian!’ [laughs] And the writers told me how everywhere they went in the world, people identified with the show. It transcends the notion of being a show about the Jewish faith — it’s universal. So when you went onstage every night, you felt you were part of a huge — pardon the pun — tradition. This musical has a long and very honorable history, and that was quite a privilege to be part of.

“It has this huge emotional context — you carry that all throughout the evening,” said Alfred Molina of playing Tevye in 2004.

FIERSTEIN: Those last few scenes of turning your back on your daughter and telling her no, I choke up just thinking about it, it’s so difficult. Or just that walk away from Anatevka, leaving your homeland and way of life behind, it’s so painful. And unfortunately, it’s not happening to that community at the moment, but it’s always happening to a community. The cruelty of human beings to human beings. How do you look at Syrians leaving their home and not see this?

BURSTEIN: In rehearsals, we talked a lot about the 60 million Syrian refugees being forced to leave their homes. Anti-Semitism, bigotry, they’re all touched on in this show. Kids growing up and changing the rules of what their parents did, breaking traditions — the reason the show is so universal and is a masterpiece is because that is not unique to the Jewish culture and it’s funny as hell and entertaining on top of it. The songs are like musical theater’s mother’s milk. The score is so beautiful and catchy, and Sheldon’s lyrics don’t call attention to themselves, they’re perfect, and they progress the plot and capture emotion in a way spoken dialogue can’t.

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MOLINA: I hope [Burstein] has a wonderful time. Without a doubt, it’s hard work and a big weight to carry every night, but the rewards are phenomenal.

FIERSTEIN: I wish for every actor to play Tevye. I don’t leave my house, my friends will tell you, and I still went on the road with that damn thing because I love that role so much! And if you had said to me tomorrow, ‘You can go do it,’ I would get the boots on and do it again. [Burstein,] enjoy every moment of it, because it’s endlessly wonderful to play that role.

BURSTEIN: It’s something I never really thought I’d get the opportunity to do — I’m unbelievably lucky. Every night, I’m at the foot of the mountain looking up at this beautiful thing in front of me, and I honestly can’t wait to get onstage just to start it. It’s something that’s so wonderful and yet unbelievably terrifying at the same time, which is exciting and where I want to be.

Twitter: @cashleelee