OK, let’s start with the voice.
It’s true: Even in casual conversation, Harvey Fierstein’s speaking voice really does sound like pebbles in a Cuisinart set to purée. It’s hard to imagine him hitting the high notes in “If I Were a Rich Man” or “Sunrise, Sunset.”
But, miracle of miracles, the actor has been starring in “Fiddler on the Roof” off and on since 2005, when he took over the lead in a Tony-winning Broadway revival. Then late last year, on only four days notice, Fierstein joined the cast of a new touring production when a shoulder injury forced the 74-year-old Topol (who starred in the 1971 film) to bow out.
The new production of “Fiddler on the Roof” will run from Wednesday, Jan. 27 through Feb. 21 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre. There will be a total of 31 performances, including 12 matinees.
“If you manage to be one of the lucky ones to be Tevye, then you get on a very short list,” said Fierstein, who donned the character’s tallit and extra-large vest for the first time in three years when the North American tour opened Dec. 8 in Toronto. “I did not expect to get that call but when the call comes, you answer.”
Not that anyone had to twist his arm. Fierstein, 57, loves doing the show. Though obviously working from the same script, the current production differs from the show he did on Broadway. That one featured a stripped down set (“a bare stage with trees,” as he puts it).
The new one largely recreates the set from the original 1964 Broadway production, which starred Zero Mostel. It presents the fictional shtetl of Anatevka in all its rustic, Chagall-like glory.
Simple or lavish, the set will always take a back seat to the brilliance of the “Fiddler” story (by Joseph Stein, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem) and the score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Thanks to songs such as “Tradition,” “To Life!” and “Matchmaker,” it is one of the most revered shows in American musical theater history.
But Fierstein says cast and crew must set aside such reverence when mounting the production.
“You can’t treat it as holy because then you can’t bring it to life,” he says. “It’s like having a recipe for bread: You can put all the ingredients out, but unless you’re willing to beat them, you’ll never have a lovely loaf of bread.”
According to Fierstein, the yeasty result is “Fiddler” the way Sholem Aleichem might have enjoyed it. And definitely not the way director Norman Jewison presented it in his 1971 film. Fierstein is not a fan of the three-hour movie.
“I find it dour, a slog thru the mud,” he says. “The first time I saw it, I thought it was a bag of down. The [stage version] is much funnier. And it breaks your heart. Sholem Aleichem’s genius was the Jewish way of looking at life. There is a balance of the bitter of sweet.”
That might sum up the Harvey Fierstein story as well. Born in Brooklyn in 1952, he recalls a family that wasn’t all that removed from the world depicted in “Fiddler.”
“I grew up Jewish-centric,” he says. “People in my house that had numbers tattooed on arms. I knew from ethnic cleansing. I knew from shtetls.”
He went on to study painting in school, but later gravitated toward theater. His big break came with “Torch Song Trilogy,” the pioneering 1981 gay-themed play he wrote and starred in, both on the stage and on the big screen. It earned Fierstein two Tony Awards (best play and best actor) and launched his career.
Other notable screen credits include “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Independence Day.” He also wrote the book for the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Out and proud, Fierstein also worked on behalf of LGBT rights issues long before the term “gay marriage” fell into the common lexicon. Having felt the sting of homophobia, Fierstein says he feels deeply the anti-Semitism depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“It does remind me of how strong and dangerous prejudice is and how easily we forget,” he says. “Modern audiences forget in America there were restricted hotels and signs that read ‘No dogs or Jews.’ ”
He even exploits this kind of prejudice to do his job as an actor. In the scene late in the show, when Tevye turns his back on his daughter, Chava, for marrying a Christian, he says he imagines a situation in which his own parents learn their daughter is a lesbian. That gets him in an intolerant frame of mind.
Fierstein is contracted to do “Fiddler” through the spring. After leaving San Francisco, the show will cross-cross North America, with stops in cities such as Seattle, Cleveland, Atlanta and Austin, Texas. There will also be a “by popular demand” one-week return engagement in Toronto, where the show recently ended a five-week run of packed houses and standing ovations.
After his “Fiddler” contract ends, Fierstein will be working on writing a new work for theater. Befitting the actor’s life, he’s quite used to bouncing from job to job.
Like the last time he starred in “Fiddler,” the production wrapped dangerously close to his next job, starring as Edna Turnblad (a role designed to be played by a man) in another iconic Broadway musical, “Hairspray.”
“We did our final performance [of “Fiddler],” he says. “I went to the bathroom, shaved the beard off and two days later I was doing ‘Hairspray.’ I went from being America’s leading father to America’s leading mother in 48 hours.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs from Wednesday, Jan. 27, through, Feb. 21, at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F. $30-$99. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays. Information: (415) 512-7770 or www.shnsf.com.