So how did you feel when they asked you to do the part of Tevye?
Well, we have the same producers on Fiddler as La Cage, and I told Susan Bristow from the Nederlanders that they should cast me. Obviously I have a lot more in common with Tevye than I do with Edna [from Hairspray].
Initially you’d brought it up?
They had hired Fred [Alfred Molina] much earlier, and it was a fait accompli by the time we had this discussion. And I said, You know who should play that role—I should! It was not a “when Alfred leaves,” it was not an “instead of Alfred,” it was a—what is the word for that?—a discussion. But I’ve said it before, Tevye is the Lear of musical theater.
Some people have been asking, “Can Harvey actually sing in a serious role like this?” You were playing Hairspray’s Edna for comedy, after all.
If I had played Edna for laughs, I don’t think I would have gotten the Tony. So that’s people’s prejudice, and to me that’s just stupid.
What about when people say you’re too raspy?
You know, Boris, you’re asking me questions that are really pissing me off. What a stupid thing to say. It’s like saying Shelley Winters is too fat to play—that’s who I am.
I’m just repeating—
That’s like saying somebody can’t play Tevye because he’s gay. Because somebody else is stupid doesn’t mean you have to be stupid, Boris.
I think you’re taking this too personally.
But musical theater is not just about pretty. Musical theater’s about the drama, it’s about when the emotion becomes so large that words alone don’t serve it, and it’s lifted to another level. There’s not a note in the score that I can’t sing. I happen to love my voice, and I think I can do things with my voice that many people who have what you would call more a conventional voice can’t.
Will the tone of the play be different?
Absolutely. We couldn’t be more different actors. [Friend comes in from the street] Why do you look like you just got back from an American Indian mukluk camp? What the fuck is that on your feet? This friend showed up in bright red Uggs. They’re hideous, with black leggings—you look like Minnie Mouse on a tear, I don’t know what!
Anyone I know?
No. Anyway, you can’t find two actors more opposite in our approach to character than Fred and I.
So how are you different?
I don’t like to talk about it.
You can’t say how you would approach the role differently?
I could but I won’t. You may be the nicest man in the world, but I don’t trust you. I know reporters. I’m going to play Tevye to the absolute best of my ability. I will use my heart, my soul, as an actor, as a human being. The show is just like a big fat open heart. When I sang “Chavaleh,” I turned around and Jerry Bock was crying. If I can make Jerry Bock, who wrote “Chavaleh,” cry, I couldn’t possibly get better applause from an audience! It’s like hitting a home run; it’ll just go downhill from here.