Actor and comedian Jackie Hoffman has joked her entire career about never having played in “Fiddler on the Roof.” This summer, she’ll break that record when she steps into the role of Yente Off Broadway in the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene’s production in Yiddish. She admits that she has long wanted to play the iconic matchmaker.
Hoffman, who starred on Broadway in “Hairspray” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is joined by Broadway stars Steven Skybell as Tevye and Jill Abramovitz as Golde, as announced earlier this week.
“I’m very excited to see [director] Joel Grey’s take,” Hoffman tells The Jewish Week. “The Yiddish alone will make it beautiful.”
How’s her Yiddish?
“Horrible,” she says. “I’m terrified to learn.” She prefers having learned to the process of learning.
Christopher Massimine, chief executive officer of NYTF, says that out of the cast of 26, 18 are speaking Yiddish for the first time. Two cast members are well-versed and the rest will be coached.
Massimine describes the production as a “literary adaptation” of the Broadway show that is “less spectacle, more intimate.” It will be the American premiere of a Yiddish-language version written by Israeli actor and director Shraga Friedman in 1965.
Skybell, who played Lazer Wolf in the most recent Broadway production of the musical and will now play Tevye, grew up in Lubbock, Texas. He remembers that in 1972, soon after the film version opened, their synagogue rented a theater to show it, with chopped liver served at intermission. At 10, he auditioned for a local production and was cast in the ensemble. Later on, he played Tevye in summer camp and then at Yale.
“Sometimes it’s hard to describe how important ‘Fiddler’ is to a young Jewish boy who wanted to enter the theater,” he says. “Now I get to approach Tevye again as a more age-appropriate person. The added challenge of doing it in Yiddish is delightful.”
Skybell learned some Yiddish in Lubbock from his grandparents, and later on, he and his brother studied Yiddish by phone. Recently, while performing in “Wicked” in Chicago, he continued with a Yiddish teacher at Northwestern University.
“Truth is that I dreamed of one day performing with the Folksbiene, to see what that might be like to speak Yiddish on stage.”
Jill Abramovitz, cast as Golde, says that she didn’t know the show “Fiddler” until she played Grandma Tzeitel in the most recent Broadway production, although as a writer, she studied it. “It’s a master class,” she says. “It’s a car that drives itself. You don’t need to drum up emotion. You get in and you are transported.”
The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Abramovitz grew up around Yiddish. “I try to write and perform comedically a lot of the time,” she says. “That’s what I love about this show. It’s so funny and it goes so deep — I think it’s beautifully and sadly relevant in new ways all the time. It’s a cautionary tale, vibrating on high today.”
Actor and singer Joanne Borts, who has been speaking Yiddish since childhood, will play Sheyndl and understudy Yente, Fruma Sarah and Grandma Tzeitel. She has toured with the show and performed on Broadway.
“It’s an incredibly perfect show. It has endured and people can’t stop themselves from reviving it — it’s awesome that it’s going to be revived in mamaloshen,” she says. “It’s very exciting that for every person learning the language, there will be that many more people running around with this beautiful language on their lips.”
Alisa Solomon, author of “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof,” tells The Jewish Week, “I’m excited to see — to hear — the show live in Yiddish.”
Referring to the Israeli production in Yiddish (she heard the album), she says, “Some translation adjustments that make lines scan or fit song rhythms, give elements of the show new dimensions and echoes.” For instance, the song “Tradition” becomes “di toyre,” pointing to the law and learning that defines Jewish practice, and that had been turned by the Broadway tunesmiths into a more universal concept.
“I’m curious about the textures we’ll find in the dialogue in Yiddish,” Solomon continues. “Some of the phrases and images that came directly from Sholem Aleichem into ‘Fiddler’ will no doubt pop to the surface, and I’m already choked up imagining the scene when Tevye declares Chava ‘dead to us.’”