Michael Harris remembers fondly the first time he watched the 1971 film of Fiddler on the Roof and seeing that “big happy guy going nuts.” That, of course, was Topol as Tevye, the poor milkman whose love, pride and faith helped him face the oppression of 1905 czarist Russia.
Topol’s portrayal is iconic, and Harris was excited when he was offered the chance to put his own stamp on the role in the Compass Rose’s upcoming production of the Tony-winning musical, running Dec. 8 through Jan. 21.
“Getting to play someone who is a fundamentally decent character but still complex is really fun to do,” Harris says. “Typically, the complex characters [I play] tend to be antiheroes or horrible people. But this is a decent guy and it’s been exciting to do it.”
With a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most beloved musicals of all time.
As company associate with the Lean & Hungry Theater and artistic director of the Baltimore Improv Group, Harris is known for his comedy chops and has performed at improv and comedy festivals around the country.
And while he’s done plenty of theater, he admits starring in a classic musical was not something.
“I’ve been in musicals but I’m not typically someone who does a lot of singing,” Harris says. “Tevye is one of those roles where people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as someone who is a singer, can play. It’s a role where you get to do pretty much everything—there are part where he is hilarious, there are parts where he’s dry, parts he is heartbroken, parts he is loving.”
The show is directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, founding artistic director of the theater, and she reached out specifically to Harris for the part, having worked with him on Greater Tuna in 2015.
“I did not initially attend auditions. Lucinda knew I had some combination of being funny and being comfortable with breaking the fourth wall, so she felt I could play him and called me up,” Harris says. “I’m a perfectly fine singer, but I’m not going to dazzle you with my range and virtuosity. I promise to hit all the notes, though.”
He sang well enough. There was no trepidation on Merry-Browne’s part. The challenge of playing Tevye, Harris says, is “de-Topol-izing,” trying not to do a copy-cat performance of the iconic actor.
Fiddler on the Roof
December 8, 2017 – January 21, 2018
Details and tickets
“There are still a few things of his I have to steal, because he is just so good, but I’m trying to do the best I can to step away from that and play the character closer to who I am,” Harris says. “Something Lucinda has focused on with me is to not present the Fiddler you have already seen. Everyone has seen the movie and different productions of it, so we’re trying to come up with a way where the characters can still come up surprising people.”
The production itself is almost a stripped-down version of the show, with a talented troupe of vagabond performers telling the touching story, rather than worrying about trying to make it seem as close to 1905 Russia as possible. It won’t be a spectacle, he says, alluding to the fact that there won’t be a fiddler on the roof in the intimate theatre space.
“Not to say Lucinda’s not still showing great respect for the material and for the authenticity of the story—this deeply, ingrained Jewish experience in Europe—but we also focus on the idea that this is the experience of so many immigrants and communities across the board even today,” he says. “It’s not just a story of humanity’s past, it’s a story still going on in different guises and flavors now. The storytelling is intimate and it makes for a powerful experience for the audience.”
Raised in Texas as a “typical jock who played sports,” Harris had no experience with theater until college, but always felt he wanted to give acting a try.
“I knew I had to find a way to do some combination of acting and writing” he says. “I went to college in Pennsylvania, met my wife in Texas, and she got a job as a physical therapist here, and I knew there was a good theater scene in DC and Baltimore, so we moved to the area in 2004.”
Over the past baker’s dozen years, Harris has performed in plays at The Studio Theater, Signature Theater, and the Kennedy Center, and has taught improv workshops for Johns Hopkins University & Hospital, Howard County Public Schools, and numerous local companies and non-profits.
“Comedy is very much my home base; it’s what got me into performing. I started out doing sketch and improv in college,” he says. “I’m 5-9, I used to have a beautiful body, but now it’s abundant, so comedy is what I get the most opportunities to do. The other thing I get to do a ton of is Shakespeare and I’m fortunate for that. We big guys with beards, these are the type of things we get.”
The Fiddler cast also includes Mindy Cassle as Golde, Stephanie Ichniowski as Tzeitel, Anna DeBlasio as Hodel, Piers Portfolio as Motel, Joe Mucciolo as Perchik and Rebecca Dreyfuss as Yente.
“I think we have a fantastic fun cast. There is a ton of energy and wonderful singers and actors,” Harris says. “One of the focuses of Compass Rose is to put professionals that have a certain amount of experience working with young students who want to be professionals down the road. We have some amazing teens playing the daughters.”
“We perform in short sketches and they are a lot of fun, but those are for grown folks,” he says. “Bring the kids to see Fiddler and enjoy a great family show, and watch those videos without them.”