Broadway veteran Bruce Winant says you don’t have to be a peasant or Russian or even Jewish to closely identify with Tevye, the lovable schlub at the heart of the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Tevye is the Everyman. He represents the good in people, the good in family,” says Winant, who plays the role in the Music Theatre of Wichita production that opens Wednesday to kick off the group’s 41st summer season of five shows. Winant was last here as guest actor for “Ragtime” 10 years ago.
“Tevye also represents that people can evolve and change, no matter how ingrained they are in their beliefs and traditions, when new ideas make them stop and think,” Winant says. “Everybody is a Tevye at some point.”
Winant, who has been on Broadway in such shows as “Chicago” and “Phantom of the Opera,” has been in two previous productions of “Fiddler,” including on Broadway in 2006 and in a 2004 turn that ran two years.
But this is his first shot at playing Tevye.
“It’s one of those ‘bucket-list’ roles that you wait for years to get. I think I began wanting to play Tevye in high school when I got the movie soundtrack with Topol and would play the record and perform to it in my room,” Winant says with a laugh.
The 1964 musical is one of those Broadway classics that never lose their power and impact and are brought back generation after generation for new audiences, says guest director Mark Madama, theater professor at the University of Michigan.
“It’s nice to do a show that is actually ‘about’ something,” says Madama, who has been working with Music Theatre of Wichita for 24 years. This is his 39th show as director. “It’s also nice to do a show that’s so well-written that a director doesn’t have to worrying about fixing it or finessing it. There’s no reason to try anything radical. It’s such a beloved classic that I feel a responsibility not to screw it up. I want to make it right, not make it a ‘Mark Madama Production.’ All you need to do is get good people (actors), then get out of the way.”
The show is by composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and writer Joseph Stein, based on short stories of Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. It tells of a poor Russian milkman, Teyve, trying to marry off his five daughters to suitable suitors and keep their traditions alive. The fiddler of the title is the fanciful embodiment of Tevye’s traditions and the crux is whether he and his fiddler can adapt enough to survive in a fast-changing world.
Among unforgettable songs are “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” the haunting “Sunrise, Sunset,” and, of course, the spirited opening, “Tradition,” which defines everybody’s age-old, accepted place in the village hierarchy, from rabbi to matchmaker to beggar.
Playing Golde, Tevye’s loving and long-suffering wife, is Wichita’s own Karen Robu, now in her 16th season with Music Theatre.
“Golde is such a strong woman. She is in control of the household even though the era she lives in gives all the power to men,” says Robu, who has been in three previous “Fiddler” productions, but in other roles.
Playing Lazar Wolf, the village butcher and one of the high-ranking elders because of the importance of kosher traditions, is Timothy Robu, Karen’s real-life husband and another longtime Music Theatre favorite. The prosperous middle-aged butcher wants to marry one of Tevye’s teen daughters because he is a lonely widower. Tevye’s dilemma is whether her financial security is more important than whether she loves him.
“Lazar is a very blue-collar type, but he lives in an era and a culture where he is a very important dude,” says Timothy Robu, who has been in the show before but not in this role.
Playing the delightfully ditsy matchmaker, Yente, is Broadway veteran Mary Stout, who is making a return to Music Theatre after 20 years. Since then, she has been on Broadway in such shows as “My Favorite Year” and “Me and My Gal.” On tour, she’s been in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Pirates of Penzance.”
Stout played Yente in the recent anniversary revival of “Fiddler” with Topol and stayed long enough to work with his successors, Harvey Fierstein and Theodore Bikel.
Other key players in the 76-member cast include Alex Finke, Alexandra Fragoso and Francesca Arostegui as Teyve and Golde’s daughters of marriageable age, with Talia Bauchmoyer and Hilary Tallman as their youngest; Evan Mayer, Matthew Amira and Matthew Elliott as the daughters’ chosen boyfriends who arouse Tevye’s paternal concerns; and Max Chucker as the Fiddler, who actually will play his own violin passages on stage.
Thomas W. Douglas will conduct a 21-piece orchestra to provide the full original score. Mark Esposito will reproduce original choreography by legendary Jerome Robbins. Set is by Paul Sannerud, costumes by Debbie Roberts, lighting by David Neville and sound by David Muehl.