CHICAGO — The voice still can thunder.
Even in conversation, away from the stage, Topol’s majestic baritone envelops the listener in luxuriant sound.
No matter what this man has to say, you’d want to hear it — savor it — just to revel in the crushed-velvet tone of that instrument.
In front of an audience, it’s more musical still, the voice darting from falsetto high notes to rumbling low ones in both song and dialogue, as Topol poignantly portrays Tevye in the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” now at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.
Yet at 73, Israeli singer-actor Topol — whose full name is Chaim Topol but is known by his surname — still marvels that he ever was allowed to sing in public in the first place. From the start of a performance career he says he practically stumbled into, he says he suffered from a tin ear (as did his listeners).
“I couldn’t hit a note,” says Topol, a few hours before opening night at the Oriental, in what’s being billed as his “Farewell Tour” as Tevye.
“When I was young, sometimes the accordion would start, I wouldn’t pay attention to what he played, and I would start my own way — and all the musicians would have to adjust in my key,” adds Topol.
“I didn’t even know that I did something wrong. All I had is the looks from the musicians, wondering ‘Where are you?’”
He has come a very long way, since starring in the London premiere of “Fiddler” (1967) and in Norman Jewison’s brilliant film adaptation (1971).
Topol has been the definitive Tevye against which all others are measured.
Add to that more than 2,500 live performances in the role on stages around the world, and he clearly will be remembered forever as Tevye the dairyman, an impoverished Jew trying to eke out an existence in a tiny shtetl in Czarist Russia.
Topol’s regal voice as Tevye, though, represents just part of his appeal. The imploring way he raises his hands to the heavens as he communes aloud with God, the bounce in his step as he dances jubilantly at his daughter’s wedding, the sorrow on his face as the czar’s soldiers attack his village all make Tevye — and his long-vanished world — feel tangibly real.
“The first time my wife and I saw Topol was in London, and he was a very young man and quite charismatic,” recalls Sheldon Harnick, who wrote lyrics to the songs in “Fiddler.”
“He walked on stage and within 30 seconds we thought, ‘We’re yours.’ He brought a great vigor and a great understanding to the role. “We just saw him again in New Jersey at the start of this tour, and when he came out, he didn’t look like a vigorous young man. He looked more frail. ... He looked like a man who’s had a difficult time of it. His second act was even more moving than I’ve ever seen him doing it.”
Certainly Topol appears thinner than his Tevye of old. The decades that have passed since he first triumphed in the role make his present-day Tevye seem worn, tired, almost despairing. Still, there’s also a palpable love of life and bittersweet humor in this interpretation, which Topol credits, above all, to Tevye himself.
“I have seen people in high school play Tevye, guys in amateur groups, I saw Yugoslavs, Croatians, actors in Zagreb and Montenegro and Turks and Greeks playing the part,” says Topol. “They are all playing extremely well, because it’s a very, very good part, probably one of the best parts ever written for a male actor-singer.”
An invention of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Tevye was re-imagined for the stage in the early 1960s by Harnick, composer Jerry Bock, book writer Joseph Stein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. Each was a first- or second-generation descendant of Eastern European Jews and essentially modeled their Tevye on the old men they knew as children.
“In a sense, Tevye is Everyman, but every great character that has ever been written is that,” says 85-year-old Theodore Bikel, another of the world’s great Tevyes. “But this is one that is down to earth. Tevye is there with all of his joys and his suffering and living in an environment that is, to put it mildly, oppressive. Yet he manages to walk, to sing, to dance, to play, in the midst of all this mayhem.”
From the start, Topol had a genetic and cultural edge in playing the role. Born in Tel Aviv in 1935 (13 years before Israel became a nation), he grew up among old, Eastern European emigres who may as well have been the Tevye that writer Aleichem created. And though most of Topol’s extended family in Europe was massacred in the Holocaust, he always felt that the essence of this character was bound up in his being.
“My father’s grandfather was a Tevye, and his grandfather was a Tevye. But, as I said, you don’t have to be a grandson of a Tevye in order to play this part.”
Yet it helps.
Not that Topol in his youth imagined becoming Tevye — or anyone else — on the musical stage. His parents never had the radio tuned to music, he didn’t take music lessons as a child and the primary music he heard was that of cantors in synagogue, their lamenting phrases audibly influencing his speech and singing in “Fiddler.”
It wasn’t until he inexplicably decided to form a choir in an Israeli kibbutz and proceeded to continue singing — and, then, acting — in the army that he found his calling (if not yet his pitch). Eventually, with practice and some coaching, his singing improved dramatically, building on his preternaturally magnificent pipes.
The rigors of performing under often-difficult conditions in the Israeli army gave bulk and heft to an already formidable set of lungs.
“One of the advantages I had was that I had a strong voice,” says Topol. “We didn’t have microphones or anything, so we really had to scream.”
After his time in the army, he helped found a roving, satirical-theatrical kibbutz troupe called Spring Onion, which became something of a national institution and launched his performance career in earnest. One of the stock characters he developed — an old Jewish emigre struggling in 1950s Israel — became the title character of the Oscar-nominated Israeli film “Sallah” (1964), Topol’s tour de force performance that got him the audition for the London “Fiddler.”
When film director Jewison appeared backstage to say he wanted Topol for the big-screen “Fiddler,” “I was shocked,” says the actor. “I have no idea why he picked me,” he adds; in his memoir, “Topol by Topol,” he pays deep homage to Zero Mostel, who originated the role.
Yet Jewison picked Topol, and in his memoir he speculates on why: “The Fiddler is essentially a tragicomedy; the first act is more comedy until just before the interval (intermission), and from then on it becomes quite sad,” writes Topol.
“If one stresses the comic element too much in the first half, it is very difficult to sway the audience to the tragic second act. Watching (the Yiddish actor) Rodenski, I learned how dramatic the second half could be and felt that the show was more than just another musical. I tried to follow his example and find the right balance. I think it was also the sort of balance which Norman Jewison felt the story called for, which is probably why I got the film part. On the other hand, the fact that I was a good deal less expensive than other candidates may also have had something to do with it.”
So is Topol really hanging up Tevye’s milk wagon after this tour? “When they invited me to do this, they asked if they could put ‘Farewell Tour,’” says Topol, who lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, Galia (they have three children and several grandchildren).
“And I said OK. But if they ask again at the age of 80, and I’m able to do it again, I’ll do it. ...
“I’m always happy to come back to Tevye.”
// Notes from the Road
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