Acclaimed actor and writer Andy Nyman says “it’s a mitzvah” to take the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof in the West End. JLife’s Evangeline Spachis finds out more…
A prolonged discussion about the inconvenience of beards was not how you’d expect to start an interview, but nevertheless Andy Nyman, currently playing the lead role of Tevye on stage in Fiddler on the Roof, is keen to emphasise that it’s all part of the essential preparation: “I like growing facial hair for parts and looking different for a role. I’ve had loads of beards over the years and it never bothers me. Except for in bed when it brushes up against your face, I am not sure how the Hassidim and the Lubavitch do it, it must drive them mad!”
So do Nyman’s majestic beard grooming skills give him the edge for this production of Fiddler on the Roof? Nyman hopes not, but jokes: “I grew a beard for show I did at this theatre three years ago, Assassins by Stephen Sondheim…maybe there was a connection for the producers where they thought, ‘I know what role he can play!’”
In case there’s a chance you didn’t know, Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of Tevye the milkman and his wife and five daughters, and features music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joseph Stein. Tevye works hard to ensure that he raises his five daughters with traditional Jewish customs amid the backdrop of the 1905 Russian revolution. The musical was last seen in 2007 at the Savoy Theatre, but returned in March at the Menier Chocolate Factory and has now transferred to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre until the 2nd November.
So how does it feel to take on such an iconic Jewish role, one that has been embodied by a host of actors from Leonard Nimoy, Paul Michael Glaser, and of course, Topol: “It’s a mitzvah to do it, for many reasons because as an actor to play this role is amazing,” reveals Nyman. “It is an extraordinary opportunity and for it to have just been offered to me is truly amazing. After 32 years of being an actor it is a really special thing.”
“As a Jew…it’s an extraordinary responsibility to tell that story every night.” Nyman explains how he keeps his deeply personal connection with the tale of Tevye and his experience close to him for every performance, displaying in his dressing room a photo of his mother’s family who fled Poland at exactly that period, later arriving in Leeds, while his paternal side of the family fled Lithuania a couple of years before. Nyman himself mainly grew up in Leicester but spent time in Leeds visiting his parents and even had his Bar Mitzvah simcha in the city.
“Obviously I was aware that Topol and Zero Mostel had created iconic performances but… When it is played with such schmaltz it just suffocates it and becomes a lesson that the audience have to watch and it kills it for me.
“What was really important to me was to tell the story with as much honesty as possible about primarily a family who happen to be Jewish and living in a shtetl. It is first and foremost a story of a man and his daughters.
“Consequently I think there is something deeply pure about the show that is very special. The more specific you make something the more universal it becomes.”
“You have this incredible cross-cultural appeal to the show, so we see families of many creeds and races coming to the show as it is all about grappling with moving away from tradition.”
“The show is unbelievably current and profound, a funny and heart-breaking piece of writing.”
Enlisting theatre directing veteran Sir Trevor Nunn, was certainly a boon for the production too, and Nyman could not speak more highly of the theatre “giant”: “Put it this way, when the world ends four years from now and they write a book about theatre and the theatre greats, there will be five names in it and one of them will be Trevor Nunn!
“So I was a little nervous when he asked me my thoughts on the show! But we loved working together, he’s an absolute mensch. The way he works is wonderful and it was a very special time.”
Most people may be familiar with Andy Nyman through his work directing and creating shows for illusionist and magician Derren Brown or perhaps with Leeds native, co-writer and best friend Jeremy Dyson. Their play Ghost Stories, which was turned into a 2017 feature film starring Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Nyman himself, will soon be returning to the boards at London’s Ambassadors Theatre from 3rd October until January 2020.
Nyman talked passionately about lack of portrayals of “the unique experience of British Jewry” on our screens, citing Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Jack Rosenthal’s Bat Mitzvah Boy as lone examples. The duo’s writing attempts to address these unexplored themes, such as including a Bar Mitzvah in the opening scenes of Ghost Stories which is based on their own childhood Bar Mitzvahs and even starred many real-life family members.
Nyman and Dyson met at a Chai summer school in 1981 and became fast friends thanks to a mutual love of horror: “We’d happily work together forever, I absolutely adore him. Horror and thrillers was one of the things that bonded us as kids and we’re still exactly the same.”
It’s all just making the time to do it, but we’re currently writing our next film together.”
To see Andy Nyman in Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theatre in London, visit Fiddlerwestend.com. For tickets to Ghost Stories visit Lyric.co.uk.