He made us love him (and his bunny slippers) in Torch Song Trilogy, stole the show from Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire and was simply divine in Hairspray on Broadway. Harvey Fierstein has conquered stages and screens across the world, and now has Toronto in his sights with the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, opening Tue, Dec 8 at the Canon Theatre.
Fierstein recently replaced Chaim Topol as Tevye in the touring production of Fiddler, having enjoyed good reviews in the role a few years back on Broadway. It’s quite a leap from Edna’s wig to Tevye’s signature beard, but Fierstein feels quite at home in this fiddler’s shoes.
“I have more in common with Tevye,” says Fierstein in that unmistakable, sexy rasp. “We’re both Jewish, we’re both men and we both love our traditions.”
Traditional might not be the first word one would reach for when describing a free spirit like Fierstein, but it seems the self-described atheist still appreciates his character’s rich spiritual life.
“God and Tevye are best friends,” he says. “That’s part of what makes the character so special. He’s funny, he’s giving, he’s loving, he’s silly and he’s got this incredible way of looking at the world unlike anybody around him. But as the show goes on, he questions God, he gets angry with God, and by the end of the show he’s not speaking with God.”
Tevye’s journey from deity chum to resentful supplicant is understandable. The Russians are evicting the Jews from their village and, as chaos descends, his beloved daughters Hodel and Tzeitel announce to their father that they oppose the idea of arranged marriages and have found their own mates. His middle daughter, Chava, goes one step further and marries a non-Jew. For Tevye, this last indignity is too much to bear.
Fierstein finds this struggle particularly moving. “Tevye asks, ‘Can I deny everything I believe? How can I turn my back on my faith and my people? If I bend that far I’ll break.’”
It’s easy to imagine the same monologue transposed to, say, coming out to your Pentecostal parents in modern-day Kansas. The allegory is not lost on Fierstein. “Can you draw a line between what happens to Tevye’s daughters and what a parent would say if their child were gay?” he asks. “Absolutely.”
The actor-playwright has long been a poster-child for gay equality and continues the fight for the legalization of same-sex marriage south of the border, despite a reluctance to indulge in the institution.
“I’ve given up on men,” he says. “I just don’t do it well. I’ve been lucky to have had seven very important relationships, but I’m not interested in being married. I’m interested in having the rights of every other citizen. The idea of America is that you have the opportunity to do what you want.”
While it’s a tragedy that the best hair and cheekbones in New York are off the market, Fierstein’s support is a huge boon to the stateside movement for marriage equality. He points to Spain as an example of how to successfully separate civil and religious unions.
“Everyone in Spain has a civil marriage,” says Fierstein. “You can have a church marriage if you want, but there’s no confusion of churches and synagogues and mosques getting involved.”
Given this progressive stance on marriage traditions, it’s easy to imagine that playing a character on the other side of the traditionalist fence might be a bit of a challenge.
Not so, says Fierstein. “I’m an actor. I play a character and I’m not onstage with my own sensibility. As an actor, you’re the lawyer for a character. You get up in front of the court and you represent your character and argue their case as best you can.”
It helps when the material provided is so rich with humour and pathos. The story, written in 1964 by Joseph Stein, was an instant hit on Broadway and has enjoyed countless revivals and awards. Classic songs like “Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man” are an indelible part of musical history, thanks to songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Sammy Dallas Bayes recreated Jerome Robbins’ Tony-winning direction and choreography for the Broadway revival.
Rumour has it that Bock was reduced to tears when hearing Fierstein’s audition piece “Chaveleh (Little Bird),” a pretty impressive reaction for a guy who once described his voice as only 5 percent tone and 95 percent pure noise.
“It’s my favourite song to perform,” says Fierstein of the tearjerker farewell from Tevye to Chava. “It’s such a joy to sing this shit.”
Fierstein says it’s a much easier score to sing than Hairspray, which featured the actor doing some pretty intense footwork while belting out pop tunes and dancing in a fat suit. It’s also easier than the emotional roller-coaster ride of Fierstein’s first Broadway hit. “When I first started doing Torch Song, I used to cry for an hour after the show,” he confesses. “But I got used to it and I put it away.”