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Steven Skybell on starring in Folksbiene's Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof has been following Steven Skybell his whole life, much like the fiddler does Tevye in the musical. The actor first played that iconic Jewish patriarch at 17 at Michigan's Interlochen Arts Camp. Four years later, he tackled Tevye at Yale. Now, at an undisclosed yet appropriate age, he's finally doing the role professionally in National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's mounting of Fiddler.
Originally scheduled to play a limited run last summer at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Yiddish-language production proved so popular it extended through New Year's Eve. Now it's transferred to Off-Broadway's Stage 42 with Skybell intact, and he's verklempt at his good fortune.
Skybell first experienced Fiddler on screen when he saw the the 1971 movie as a child. At 11, he appeared as an extra in a local community production in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. That's when he got hooked. "I remember to this day sitting in the wings and just taking it all in," he says about the musical, set at the turn of the 20th century in the fictional Russian village of Anatevka, where Jewish dairyman Tevye struggles between upholding longstanding cultural traditions and supporting his headstrong daughters in a rapidly changing world. Since Skybell dreamed of becoming an actor, it was meaningful for him to see Jewish characters who reminded him of his own family on stage. "There was a shtetl-like aspect to growing up in a small town that I think has always resonated with me," he says.
After college, Skybell moved to New York where he's been a stage regular since the late '80s, notably stints in Wicked and The Full Monty on the Main Stem, and lots of the Bard Off-Broadway. But he had a Fiddler dry spell until 2016 when he was cast as a replacement for Lazar Wolf, the widowed butcher seeking to marry Tevye's eldest daughter, in the recent Broadway revival of the musical.
Then Folskbiene announced its Fiddler last year and Skybell took it as a sign. Not only was he finally the right age to play Tevye, he also knew Yiddish and the director, Joel Grey, having worked with him in Wicked.
Skybell credits Grey with guiding his nuanced take on Tevye in a Fiddler that feels less broad than other interpretations. As an example, the actor points to the song "Do You Love Me?" (Libst Mikh, Sertse?"), when Tevye asks his wife Golde that question after 25 years of marriage. Often it's played for laughs, with Golde shrieking, "Do I what?!" But in Folksbiene's Fiddler, it's an honest query that leads to an epiphany for the couple.
"Usually Golde is just freaking out and it's not real," says Skybell. But in this production, "they are taking the time to really examine what they have, and they come to a new understanding late in their lives" about love. That's a word their daughters use throughout the show, but something these mature spouses never thought much about. "We see the payoff of that in the second act, when finally Tevye wonders to his wife: I see this happening all around us. Is that a pie you and I can have a piece of? Do you love me?"
Grey was also instrumental in helping Skybell put his own stamp on "If I Were a Rich Man" ("Ven Ikh Bin a Rothschild"). "There's a danger with 'Rich Man' because, obviously, it carries such baggage -- it's a real litmus test of a Tevye," Skybell says. Despite coming early in the story, it's often played as a showstopping 11 o'clock number, but Grey suggested Skybell think of it as a daydream. "It's an introduction to this character, who is an everyman with fantasies of a better life," he says. "This wants to be a song when, in the sweat of his working day, Tevye takes a moment to think about what things might make life a little sweeter."
Although Skybell has been known to joke that the only way he got to do Tevye for pay was by doing it in Yiddish, he's thankful for the opportunity. It's a full-circle career moment: Not only did he play the part twice in his youth, but one of his early New York City gigs was in Cafe Crown, a play about the Lower East Side's Yiddish theatre scene that ran at the Public in 1988 and transferred to Broadway the next year. At the time, he wondered whether he would be able to do more shows of that genre, perhaps even work with Folksbiene, the longest continuously-producing Yiddish theatre company in the world. And now, here he is. Using the Yiddish word for meant to be, Skybell says, "It was beshert."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Steven Skybell in Folksbiene's Fiddler on the Roof. Photos by Matthew Murphy.
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