Mark Jacoby on playing Tevye

Mark Jacoby on playing Tevye in Walnut Street Theatre’s Fiddler on the Roof.

It was so nice to get a second chance to interview Mark Jacoby as he was “Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum-ing” through the role of Tevye in Walnut Street Theatre’s stunning production of Fiddler on the Roof. Mark talks about what he brings to this famous role, and why the show is still so popular more than four decades later after it opened on Broadway.

Mark Jacoby as Tevye (Photo: Mark Garvin)

DC audiences were fortunate to see Mark play The Mayor in Signature Theatre’s production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Visit and as The Padre in the revival of Man of La Mancha at National Theatre with Brian Stokes Mitchell.  Broadway fans will remember Mark’s performances as father in the original production of Ragtime, The Phantom, Gaylord Ravenal in the 1994 revival of Showboat, and as Judge Turpin in John Doyle’s production of Sweeney Todd, where Mark played trumpet and orchestra bells.

Joel: What is Fiddler on the Roof about from Tevye’s point of view?

Mark: It’s a show about transitions. I think it’s about moving from here to there in a society that’s not used to doing that. I think Tevye is confronting personal, societal, and environmental changes beyond his control, and he needs to learn to evolve.

Joel: Why did you want to play Tevye in this Walnut production?

Mark: To be honest – it had never really crossed my mind to play Tevye before about two years ago. I was approached to play the role in a concert version in Washington, D.C. The concert version never materialized, and after that I more or less put it out of my head. The offer to play here at the Walnut came very much out of the blue, a little more than a month before rehearsals began.

Joel: What in your background prepared you to play Tevye?

Mark: It is part of my philosophy…and part of a general belief, really… that we are always ourselves. The question is: Where can we go in ourselves to find that part of the character we know about. Clearly, there are elements of the story I don’t know anything about. I don’t know about living with and through that level of persecution against any one group…and I think few of us do. What I do know about, however, is parenthood and the experience of being a parent – confronting the eventual and inevitable generational friction between parents and children. I also know about the deep caring and love attached to being a parent, that’s where I go to for preparation, for the most part – my experience as a parent.

Joel: You played one of the most challenging roles ever on the stage –The Phantom. What is the most difficult challenge for you in playing Tevye? Are there similar challenges playing this role that you had when playing The Phantom?

Mark: I think the two roles have very different challenges. The Phantom is quite literally an otherworldly, surreal character…possibly even bordering on science fiction. Playing that role, there’s a sense of isolation from the rest of the company both on and offstage, and that’s completely appropriate for that role: he’s on his own. On the other hand, Tevye is a very real person, with very real and literal issues to deal with. The difficulty for me is the fact that the role is extremely iconic and strongly associated with the original conception and the person who played it (Zero Mostel). There’s a predetermined sense of who this person (Tevye) is when you sit in your seat or pick up the script. The issue is, how much do you adhere to that? Do you welcome new changes and interpretations? It’s a delicate line to walk, having to respond and deal with these preconceived notions about who this man is.

Joel: You are playing opposite Mary Martello, who plays Golde.  Have you worked with her before, and how would you describe Mary’s Golde?

Mark: I hadn’t worked with Mary before, but I had met her previously at the Walnut’s 200th anniversary gala last year. Mary is a very real Golde – and I’ve seen a lot of Goldes! It’s a role that’s usually bitten off and chewed in a very character-y way – not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but she brings a little less affectation than one would normally associate with the role. Mary is wonderful in the fact that her Golde seems more like a real woman and less of a caricature.

Joel: What is your favorite song and scene to hear and watch when you are not on the stage?

Mark: The Entre-Act is begun solo by the Fiddler onstage, joined by the orchestra later on. It’s very stark and beautiful.

Joel: What advice did director Bruce Lumpkin give you on playing Tevye? How would you describe his vision for this production?

Mark: Well, one of his visions is the very strong presence of the Fiddler as an element in the show. The Fiddler functions almost as an alter-ego for Tevye. The biggest thing Bruce imparted to me is that we should trust the truth of the material and not to turn it into an overt, obvious comedy. Play it for the simple truths.

Joel: How has musical director Douglass G. Lutz assisted you with your performance?

Mark: Doug is a model of a liberal Musical Director. His approach is to accommodate where possible. Making music together is what’s important and he’s a real musical theatre conductor through and through.

Joel: You have performed at Walnut Street Theatre in State Fair (where I interviewed you) and in 42nd Street.  Why do you enjoy working there?

Mark: I’ve only ever had good experiences here. I can’t expand too much on it, really. I like Philly! I like the people at the theatre – and from a strictly practical point of view – the shows have very long runs and the pay is more than respectable, It’s almost like “why not? I don’t know what the down side would be to working at the Walnut.

Joel: Are there any roles that you have not performed yet that you would like to play?

Mark: Not really – well, that’s not true. I’ve always wanted to be in the play Art. I’ve never had the opportunity, but I think I could do it and would like to do it. The only roles in musical theatre are things I’m too old to do now. I always wanted to play Tony in West Side Story. I played the role in concert, but never on stage. Another would be Harold Hill in The Music Man. It’s my favorite role and it’s the show the really captured my attention as child.

Joel: What s it about Fiddler on the Roof that makes it such a popular show 46 years after it opened to acclaim on Broadway?

Mark: Fiddler is extremely unique in its subject matter. It is based on charming and unique subject material. Sholem Aleichem had such a special voice as a writer, and the creators of the show did an excellent job tapping into that. The songs have a charming simplicity perfectly matched to the material. It’s beautiful, but not precocious in any way. The creators were some of the greatest collaborators in Musical Theatre History.  Basically, because it’s just good!

Joel: What’s next for you after Fiddler on the Roof?

Mark: I don’t really know for sure right now. There are a number of things out there that might become clearer later in the summer, but right now I don’t think I’m at liberty to say.

Fiddler on the Roof plays through July 18th at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For more information and to purchase tickets, call their box office at (215) 574-3550, or purchase tickets here.

Listen to Joel interview Mark Jacoby at Walnut Street Theatre when he appeared in State Fair on October 17, 2008 here.

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