by Angela Tricarico
For Bruce Sabath, the opportunity to understudy Tevye in the off-Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof is like reuniting with an old friend, with one big difference: this time, it’s in Yiddish.
Sabath, who plays Leyzer-Volf in the production, says Fiddler has been in his life for as long as he can remember, from listening to the original cast recording as a child, to a summer camp production, and into his professional career. He has played Tevye in English productions of the musical three times: in high school, college, and five years ago at Stages St. Louis when he returned to acting. And now, in Yiddish, Sabath has gone on as Tevye for 17 performances since opening.
“Learning Yiddish in just a few weeks was perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve ever had as an actor,” Sabath said.
To learn the score, the cast was given the Yiddish script written in the English alphabet with the direct English translations provided, along with the original script and score, where many of the lines changed in translation. Sabath said he got the hang of learning a new language thanks in part to the Yiddish coaches at the Folksbiene, where this production of Fiddler originated.
“Initially, I was only ‘fluent’ in the lines for Leyzer, but as we performed the show over six months downtown, I started to understand what characters around me were saying as well,” Sabath said. “As in any show we had to improvise when on stage, except here, we had to improvise in Yiddish!”
Sabath was offered the chance to understudy Tevye when the off-Broadway transfer to Stage42 was made official. Immediately, he got to work to learn an entirely new, much larger track in a language that still was not his native one. He didn’t have access to coaching during much of this period, but Sabath said he spent the break before rehearsals started up again breaking the Tevye track up into blocks and learning them bit-by-bit, starting at the end of the show and working his way toward the beginning.
“By the time we resumed rehearsals at the end of January, I was off book with Tevye’s entire script, both scenes and songs,” Sabath said. “Fortunately, I didn’t have to go on until early May, but it was a relief to have it ready to go, just in case.”
In addition to tech and a put-in rehearsal before his first performance as Tevye, Sabath got a special opportunity to work one-on-one with director Joel Grey, something that understudies don’t often get.
“Joel appreciated that my Tevye is different from Steven [Skybell]'s Tevye, and worked with me to develop my ‘version,’ and working with Joel is a joy,” Sabath remembers.
When Sabath does the roles in succession, he finds that Tevye’s big scene with Leyzer (before “To Life”) can be “mind-bending” due to the “classic comedy routine” that takes place. He finds he has to focus more during dance numbers, as Leyzer is older and Tevye is a younger, more muscular man.
To keep the Tevye track fresh in his mind when he hasn’t gone on in a while, he runs it on his own weekly; he says it takes about an hour to go through all of his songs and spoken lines. When he knows a performance is coming up, Sabath says he likes to run on the empty stage for the specific spacing and blocking.
“I’m always careful to think about each word so they continue to retain specific meaning,” he explained.
Sabath says the biggest surprise of this new journey with a familiar show is “the way it has touched so many people so profoundly,” and also that they are still performing it now, over a year after they opened the original seven-week run. For now, he’s just enjoying the ride, and excited for a planned week of Tevye performances when he’ll go on from September 24-29.