The woman behind 'Fiddler on the Roof's' Tevye has her say
SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — It's not a common thought leaving a production of a classic musical, but for me, I think that "Fiddler on the Roof," one of America's best-loved musicals, probably has more songs sung as first dances at a wedding than does any other musical.
There's "Sunrise, Sunset," "Miracles of Miracles," and "Now I Have Everything," for starters. As the couple dance, you might even hear parents in the back humming, "If I Were a Rich Man."
Yes, at its heart "Fiddler on the Roof" — which plays Proctors Tuesday through Feb. 23 — is about weddings. Three of Tevye's daughters get married in the show. Almost everyone breaks his heart because each defies tradition.
"Fiddler on the Roof" opened in 1964 and won the Tony Award in 1965. Zero Mostel won the Tony and Best Male Actor in a lead role. Maria Karnilova won for Best Supporting actress as his wife, Golde. It ran for eight years and was the first musical to play more than 3,000 performances.
There is no denying the show's beautiful story about a struggling milkman in Russia, who in 1905 struggles to keep his Jewish traditions alive. Based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, it is wonderfully literate, supported by a brilliant score.
However, what keeps "Fiddler" fresh is that it has the remarkable quality of being a different show every time you see it. The text is unaltered but the moods and the emotions are shape-shifters. At this point in history, it is the females in the show who drive the piece.
In a recent interview with Maite Uzal, who's played Golde for a year and a half with this national tour, Tevye is the central figure and the star of the show. But she insists it is the females who bring heart, passion and rebellion to the production.
She makes the point that if you accept the term that the protagonist is the person in a play who moves the plot forward, the daughters are the protagonists in "Fiddler." "If the daughters don't defy Tevye, the play doesn't move," she says. Adding, "To study the growth of the daughters is to understand the evolution of the modern woman."
Of course, she's right. The oldest daughter spurns the matchmaker who would have her marry the older, rich butcher. She defies the Matchmaker and her father to marry the man she loves, the lowly tailor.
His second daughter breaks tradition at her sister's wedding to dance with a male, a revolutionary no less. When he is exiled to Siberia, she follows her husband to help him endure his ordeal.
And finally, his third oldest daughter does the unthinkable. She marries a gentile, which means she becomes dead to her father.
As for Uzal's character, Golde, she's often played for comedy as a shrewish, sharp-tongued, rather silly woman. You could sense Uzal sneering through the phone at the thought. "You think those girls could stand up for their individuality if they had a weak mother as a role model?" she questions. Indeed, she sees her daughters behaving as Golde might have if she were born in another generation.
While Uzal refuses to use the term "tragic" to describe Golde's life, she will compare her to Linda Loman from "Death of a Salesman" in that being a dutiful, loyal wife did deprive her of her true spirit and identity. "She was loyal to her husband and his traditions," she says. And, yes, she implies that even though she was a product of an arranged marriage, she does love Tevye.
That comes out when she expresses annoyance at the traditional way the character is played a comedic figure. "True, she is funny. But she's an honest funny. I never have to punch a line to get a laugh. I say it as written, find the truth in the moment, and it becomes funny," she said. If Uzal's version of Golde could be summed up in a single cliche, she does not suffer fools gladly.
As an example, she cites "Do You Love Me?" a song that Tevye sings to her after a daughter chooses her own husband. "We're married for 25 years and we've raised five daughters, and now he asks me if I love him? Of course, my answers sound funny," Uzal said.
Not only does the Spanish-born actress find something new about her character every night, she says that with every performance her love and respect for her own mother, who still lives in Madrid, deepens. "This show has taught me that to be a mother is to be unselfish and always sacrifice for your child," Uzal said. "It's made me realize that was who my mother was for me. We always got along well, but after playing Golde, I adore her strength, love and selflessness."
For Maite Uzal, playing Golde is a very special honor and a truly personal experience.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.