When Tevye comes to town—a Tradition!

John Preece (first row, at left) leads the cast of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Peabody Opera House.

By Robert A. Cohn

When John Preece takes the stage of the recently restored Peabody Opera House to star as Tevye in its production of “Fiddler on Roof, he will be at least the eighth major actor to portray that classic role on a St. Louis stage. Preece is also the first non-Jewish actor to portray Tevye on a major St. Louis stage, but he had ample time to prepare for his iconic role, having played first Lazar the Butcher and then Tevye the Dairyman for the past 22 years, a staggering 3,400 times combined in those roles.

Based on the classic Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye”s Daughters,” the two-act musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” with book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, was first produced on Broadway by Harold Prince on Sept. 22, 1964 at the Imperial Theatre. The musical about the travails of the pious but naive Tevye the Dairyman of the Anatevka shtetl in Russia, 1905, and his five rebellious daughters, had a staggering run of 3,242 performances, shattering all previous musicals on the Great White Way. If there was ever solid evidence that producers should not fret over whether a play or musical on stage or screen might be “too Jewish” for general audiences, “Fiddler,” the quintessential “most Jewish” of all American musicals, should put that myth to rest.

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Zero Mostel, the once-blacklisted superstar immortalized the role as the first Broadway Tevye, for which he won a Tony Award. His wife Golde was played by Maria Karnilova, and the first actress to portray Yente the Matchmaker was the veteran comic actress Bea Arthur. “Fiddler,” described as “unabashedly sentimental,” featured such immortal songs as “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Tradition.” When it completed its initial run on Broadway on July 2, 1971, the musical had etched its way into the national—and international — consciousness with numerous productions around the nation and the world, including several right here in St. Louis.

“Fiddler” first hit St. Louis boards in 1970 at the Muny where singing superstar Robert Merrill portrayed Tevye to rave reviews. There were eight subsequent Muny productions of “Fiddler,” with some having an extended two-week run. In 1973, Herschel Bernardi played Tevye. He received acclaim for his portrayal but is perhaps equally remembered as the voice of Charlie the Tuna on Chicken of the Sea commercials. In 1976, Mostel himself took the Muny stage to reprise the role he created—and owned on Broadway. The late Joe Pollack, in his review of the show for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, headlined his story, “Zero Does His Number.”

In the overflow audience on Mosel’s opening night at the Muny was local singer Mark Richman — a longtime Tevye “groupie.” “Even before the show actually started, Zero Mostel came out of the small house on the set and received a non-stop standing and cheering ovation,” Richman recalls. “He seemed genuinely moved since the Muny stage is larger than Broadway venues. Finally, he said, ‘Thank you folks, but excuse me. We have a show to put on.’ And of course the show itself also tore the house down.”

Richman recalls his late friend Mickey Brandon as “our home-grown St. Louis Tevye.” Brandon was a popular local entertainer who would appear at local venues in full Tevye makeup. “Mickey would belt out ‘If I Were a Rich Man” or ‘Tradition!’ to the delight of local audiences. He would often show up where I was doing a gig and do his Tevye numbers.  The last time he did this was at a concert I was doing at Clayton High School. He sang ‘Tradition!’ and nailed it 100 percent, even though nearly all of his eyesight was gone at that point. I told him, ‘Mick, if I never, ever see you do Tevye again, just know that this was your best ever!”

After Mostel, Paul Lipson did Tevye for the Muny in 1982, and then Theodore Bikel, the Oscar-winning co-star of “The Sound of Music,” did Teyve three times in 1987, 1993 and 1998, followed by Bruce Adler in 2003 and Louis Stadlen in 2008. Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who portrayed Tevye in the 1971 Norman Jewison movie, appeared in a Fox Theatre/Muny Broadway production in January, 1990.

Bikel was strongly positive about his Jewish identity, having served as national president of the American Jewish Congress during the 1980s.  He and his friend Herschel Bernardi appeared in a St. Louis production of “Proclaim Liberty,” which celebrated the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. The two Tevyes appeared on the same stage at the American Theatre on May 2, 1976 in a production that was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Afterwards, Bikel and Bernardi mingled with the local Jewish guests and spoke of their passion for Jewish culture in America and the State of Israel. “I am a general practitioner in the world of art,” Bikel told the St. Louis Jewish Light on that occasion. And he was a very proud Jewish general practitioner in the world of art.”

And so, when John Preece takes the stage at the Peabody Opera House this week as the eighth major star to play Tevye in St. Louis, he will be carrying forward a connection between Anatevka, Russia and St. Louis, which goes back almost four decades. You might even say it’s a tradition!