Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
May 24th, 2016
Jessica Hecht and Alexandra Silber are currently playing mother and daughter in the 2016 Tony-nominated revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which is why it seemed like a great idea to interview them in that famed Jewish institution, the Carnegie Deli. But the Carnegie Deli is low lit and loud—good for matzo ball soup, bad for interviews. So we move to plan B, which is neither here nor there, other than to say that on one hand, things are never simple and on the other hand, it actually was pretty simple. But this is a set up for a metaphor. The Bartlett Sher-helmed production of Fiddler has proven to be one of the most complex productions of this ubiquitous musical. From the historical rigor to the contemporary context of the current refugee crisis, and European anti-Semitism being at a post-war high (with anti-Semitism on American college campuses being not far behind), this Fiddler is different than all other Fiddlers. And of course, that’s also in large part a credit to the actors. Jessica is most recently known for The Assembled Parties, Harvey, and A View From the Bridge, and Alexandra has been seen in Master Class, Hello Again, and Arlington (among others). Together, they’re bringing new layers to their roles as Golde and Tzeitel. We spoke to them about how they incorporated historical material into their roles, generational differences, doing a revival for a modern audience, and more.
This production of Fiddler on the Roof is, arguably, the most well-researched production of Fiddler to ever be on Broadway. That’s been talked about a lot. But I was curious about how the research affected your process for creating your characters?
Alexandra: You did a lot of homework before.
Jessica: I did a lot of homework before. Well, Al has done the production before, so she did homework in different ways.
Alexandra: In different ways, yeah.
Jessica: My grandparents are from this part of the world—from a shtetl called Germakivka, which is probably, like, 100 miles from the fictionalized Anatevka, so my experience is, I’d say, largely visceral, because I lived with them and I have the familiarity of what they sounded like and what their stories were. Then, reading the Sholem Aleichem stories gave this narrative and this beautiful sort of color to what may or may not have been their experience. It’s very unlikely that anything that Sholem Aleichem wrote was an actual factual experience. But the flavor and the sense of going on despite tremendous amounts of negativity is very Jewish, so that filled me. And I think my biggest experience was with the rabbi, who I connected to quite a bit. I found that rabbi to be very, um…
Alexandra: The rabbi they brought in for us? I loved him.
Jessica: Yeah. [Rabbi] Larry Hoffman was our sort of dramaturgical rabbinical source.
Alexandra: Yeah! I stayed in touch with him, actually. We talk like once every fortnight. I felt the same thing. I felt this real warmth and I felt that he understood the nature of what we were trying to accomplish in such a sensitive way. And he obviously teaches rabbinical liturgy, but he also had a sense of theatricality about him that understood what we were trying to capture. I felt like he really understood that we were trying to make Judaism accessible and universal as opposed to overly specific and therefore exclusive. I feel like he really got that.
Jessica: Yes, and Alisa, too. Alisa Solomon—she also came to speak with us—and her book Wonder of Wonders is a magnificent study of Fiddler on the Roof. She’s a very serious person. To be quite honest, there have been many productions of Fiddler on the Roof that have been more comic or more catered to a Borscht Belt crowd. I feel like I’m not saying something nice when I say that. But I do feel that. My grandparents went to Kutsher’s every year in the Catskills, which is the Borscht Belt, and is where people go to hear stories and songs about the old country and it’s a source of entertainment. But I don’t think that the genesis of this play needs to be purely comic or devised to make people laugh. And so, Alisa Solomon is a very serious person, so she looked at it from that vantage, and I was very moved by her book.
Alexandra: One of the things I find so fascinating is—and Alisa really made this very clear—that there are two histories that we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with the history of these actual people, and then the history of the musical that people have very specific, endemic memories about. I think what the team really wanted us to focus on was honoring the history of the piece itself, but really focusing on creating real people from this time period, not as seen through the lens of the 1964 experience. And I think that’s what made this so unique—really trying to see these people as coming directly from that 1905 world. I have done a production of [Fiddler] before. I did the last West End revival of Fiddler, but I played Hodel. When I did that, I was in London, so I sort of took it upon myself to go to Russia. And I share the same cultural history. My great-grandparents are from a shtetl right outside of Odessa; my grandparents are first generation [American]. So, yeah, it does feel extremely visceral. And I remember when I went to Russia to do all that research, I just felt that thing people talk about—that skin-tingling connection to one’s antecedents, you know. And feeling—[to Jessica] you and I once talked about this—a real responsibility to honor these people that were so brave and suffered so deeply and yet continued to keep going. I feel like I’m up there every night representing the spirit and the memory of those people, you know?
Jessica: Yes! Yeah, yeah.
Alexandra: A lot of it was pretty travel-based, and then also—I’m a closet academic, like there’s another life where I wish I could have done that—so I love reading and I love talking to people. We worked a lot from Life Is with People—the book that the piece itself was based on—and we had a bunch of people come in from Columbia University: Alisa Solomon, Larry Hoffman (our rabbi), and they were all very open to dialogue. And it was really interesting. One of the things that I loved, and a really specific thing that I wanted to bring into Tzeitel, was [something that happened] when I was in London in September and I was renewing my visa because I have duel citizenship. I was at the home office and it was right at the height of the Calais incident and the refugee crisis, so the home office in London was just flooded with people. And I sort of couldn’t believe that I was in the short line of people, like entertainers, that were just getting a stamp renewed, and there were these desperate, desperate people in the other line. It was just such an unbelievable difference, you know? I kind of was following a certain family through the line, and it was a woman—clearly the husband wasn’t there—a young woman who had about four children, one of whom was an infant, and she was very, very heavily pregnant. And her father was with her. And clearly, as my stamp was being stamped, they had been given the news that all of the women were allowed to stay—so the female children and the woman were allowed to stay—but all of the male children and the grandfather were going to be sent back to wherever they had come from.
Jessica: Oh my God.
Alexandra: And, you know, none of this was in English. It was so profound. And there was this one moment where the grandfather kissed the baby and then he kissed her belly, and it just flooded me with this realization that no one has any idea whether that grandfather will ever know that child or if they’ll ever be reunited, and I was so overcome with emotion. When we were in the middle of rehearsal about a month later—we were talking so much about the refugees—I thought, I need to somehow propose that and get that into the piece. And that is one of the final moments of our show now. I never met those people, but their story is alive on the Broadway stage and that makes me feel like I’m doing some kind of good in the world. You know?
I want to go back to something you both kind of touched on. Do you see in audience members a different generational reaction to the piece?
Alexandra: I think that’s true of all universal, good theatre. I think it’s the same whether this was the 150th production of Twelfth Night or Hamlet. And I think what’s so fascinating about Fiddler is that all of the revivals seem to have sort of the glory of being seen through the lens of that particular social climate. In the first revival, it was the 70s/80s—you know, a real feminist movement, like a real [sense of] what it meant for these girls to be choosing this. And I think now it’s more universal and connected to refugees. I think about marriage equality a lot. You know, people that really feel that their decision to love someone is very right, and a society saying the opposite. And yes, to answer your question, I do think that people feel it in different ways. But I think that’s good, because I think they leave the theatre discussing it and discussing their differences about that. One of the reasons I find the marriage equality discussion and parallels so moving is that I have this incredibly liberal mother who says, “You know, I can’t explain why when marriage equality was on the table, my insides just went [squished up] and I balked. Because everything in my body and my consciousness agrees with this. But it really is an unbelievable amount of 60-plus years of sociological norms and pressure that made me question my instinct.” And it took her a whole process of going, “Wait… X, Y, Z… Oh wait, I do agree with this.” And that’s exactly the process that Tevye goes through. And it just goes to show you that no matter what time period we’re in, everyone has to question what they truly believe, and hopefully, eventually come to own it in a different way, rather than just being told that they believe.
Jessica: It’s very interesting. I never thought about it in terms of contemporary social issues. It’s fascinating. I think about it in terms of this refugee crisis. That’s such a fascinating answer, but I think it’s I think it’s generational that I don’t think of it in those terms. And I’m completely supportive of marriage equality—I don’t think that much about that either. I just think, “Of course! Why wouldn’t you get married?”
Alexandra: Totally, totally!
Jessica: But what I do find quite interesting in terms of generational relationships to the play are two things. One, is the play is structured so that there’s a storyline that any generation can look at. So, of course people who come when they’re fifteen connect to the girls; people who come when they’re fifty-five connect to Danny [Burstein] and myself. And older people connect to their parents. But what is so interesting in terms of the structure of the play and the history of the play is that many people will come who are in their 50s and say, “It’s amazing to be here,” saw Zero. Mostel.” Which, if they saw Zero Mostel, they were children, so their experience was merely that of a child watching a famous person act. They didn’t have an emotional experience. They probably had an excited, spectacular experience. But what has occurred when they come back is that they see a production in which they have a relationship to the story. And then, when people come back and they’re older and they say, “I didn’t remember crying so much,” it’s because they’re connecting to the story of the parents, not that of the daughters. When they watch the daughters, they feel excited and romantic and thrilled; when they watch the parents, they cry. I mean, it’s sad. The structure of the play is brilliant. And the quality of this production… I think it’s spectacular from a visual standpoint, but I don’t know that there’s any moment or any bit of it that one would think of as a spectacle. It’s more of a play!
Alexandra: Yeah. It is a musical play, this production. And I love that. That’s really fascinating. And it goes back to the thing I said originally, which is connection to the story itself and connection to the history of the musical, which are really different things. That was one the things I found so fascinating when I did it in London—nobody really knew the story. And there was ownership of it as a European story. Whereas here, we see it through such an American lens, you know? And also that [in London] nobody in the audience had any history with the musical. None of them had played Lazar Wolf in high school, do you know what I mean? I played Golda in high school. It’s one of those things where you come to it over and over again and recognize: I haven’t seen this since I’ve been married, I haven’t seen this since I’ve had children, I haven’t seen this since… And I’ve been having that experience returning to it in a different role, too. Like, realizing that when I was Hodel, I played her from 23 to 25 and had just lost my dad and was sort of using that train station scene in a lot of ways to say goodbye to him. And now I’m eight years older and thinking about marriage and family, and what my faith means to me, and what it means to be a woman and not a girl, and that is Tzeitel’s journey. And I’m not more suited to serve her story than I am to serve anyone else. So it’s not just from the outside—it’s from the inside, the different experiences.
Something that comes up a lot when I talk to people who are doing revivals is the process of making it for a modern audience, particularly in regards to the female characters. They were written in a different era, a different generation. And how one approaches playing a character in a way that’s still true to the author’s intent and true to the story, but also going to go over well with the modern audience who are going to have different views about gender roles and all that. And I was wondering if you could both talk a little bit about whether that affected how you approached the characters for this.
Alexandra: Sure. My first instinct is to say that it’s Bart’s [Sher] specialty. I just wanted to say that. I think that Bart has said many times that he’s a feminist, and you can feel it and you can see it in his work. You can tell that he’s a man that really loves and respects the dignity of women. And in terms of approach—[to Jessica] and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I observed this in you—many things that actually Bart told me to do was really watch Jessica. Tzeitel is that apple that didn’t fall far from the tree. And two words really came up for me—I do a lot homework-y things, like the adjectives mean a lot to me, the colors and textures and stuff—but dignity and rigor are the two words that really stand out of what it was like to be a woman in this life. There was an acceptance that they were not slaves. That they were this incredible sense of support, and that they felt a tremendous amount of dignity in their God-given role. And that there was glory in a perfectly created centerpiece. There was dignity in running a household. So, to recognize that they didn’t see themselves as enslaved, and yet—especially for the generational shift between Golda and the girls—that questions of can we, however, marry the people that we choose seeming more obvious to them. But I think that comes out of a dignity. I think that comes out of self-respect. And that is universal. I think that is something that women from all times, whether society said so or not, have always felt and experienced and wanted to fight for.
Jessica: That’s interesting. I love the idea of dignity and rigor. I definitely think that rigor was, without a doubt, part of their existence. I do a lot of revivals—this is the first musical—but I’ve done a lot of revivals of what people would consider American masterpieces or contemporary masterpieces. What’s interesting to me is not looking at it from a contemporary standpoint—I know there are many directors that do that—but I worked with a director named David Cromer, who has an incredible aesthetic for looking at revivals that really changed the way I thought about it. Because what happens is that people forget what the actual story is of the play. They do revivals and they think so much about this idea of contemporizing it that they don’t look at just the story. So people that would do a play that is in the public library of plays they know or stories they know are basically sometimes reviving a thought about the play.
Jessica: They don’t actually know what happens in the story.
Alexandra: Human moment to human moment.
Jessica: Right. Like, what happens? These people are in this house. They’re really poor. They don’t have any time to have fun. Their daughters are potentially going to be married to these guys who have money. So that’s just what happens in the first scene. There’s nothing to add because already people have added a lot in trying to make it funny or sentimental or this or that, and they get away from the story. The story is actually quite good. And so we do all this stuff because we’re thinking of what we reflect on in the play and what we reflect on in society, and then you’re interpreting it through that lens rather than just what happens in the story. And that, in and of itself, is the most true to a revival, because the people coming to see it have seen it many times and they haven’t actually seen the original. So you’re actually trying to take them backwards rather than forwards, because I think these plays are masterpieces because the play itself is timeless. That is, if it’s a play that’s that good. I mean, there are many plays that people might try to look at a revival that’s not as well structured as this one, or as well structured as Arthur Miller’s plays or Tennessee Williams’ plays. These plays are really well structured. And Bart has a similar aesthetic, and he’s magnificent at laying the landscape for that. I just think that only a few directors work that way, and it’s very moving to see.
Alexandra: I remember when we were doing the scene where I sort of say, “I don’t want to marry him,” and was playing it with a great deal of contemporary strength. And Bart said, “Try this. Try taking your time. Really, really taking your time”—I’ll never, ever forget this—“And recognizing that this is 1905. This has not only never been uttered before, ‘I don’t want,’ it’s never been thought before. And so when this comes out of her, the world needs to explode. It needs to open up. This is the inciting incident of all the changes. And I know that’s a lot of pressure, but that endemically makes Tzeitel strong no matter how it comes out. The fact that it does come out and comes from her, from this young, young girl. Allow that to sort of be what it is.” And I think that’s what you’re saying. Don’t play strength. Don’t play feminism. Play the truth, and the strength and feminism is innate.
Do you feel any extra pressure or responsibility or emotional connection to playing some of the very small handful of expressly Jewish female characters in musical theatre?
Alexandra: Again, I think that going back to this concept of like, what [Jessica] was just saying about how they’re people that are in love, that are poor, that exist in this time, and they are Jewish—that is as much a part of their identity as anything else. Do I feel a responsibility and an honor in that? I definitely do, but I feel the honor as much of playing a young woman, as playing a young mother, you know? It’s inclusive. It’s not the leading card, if that makes any sense. And going back to the word dignity, to not play the stereotype. And I have very specific thoughts about Tzeitel’s faith. I think Tzeitel really believes and has a real strong faith. It’s funny, because it’s not really something that’s really explored in the play exactly, but I think there’s a real, innate belief in a benevolent God in her. And I think it’s one of the things that sort of fuels her ability to say very scary things for the first time in the family’s life. And, you know, I connect to that personally, so I just try to live that truth.
Jessica: I feel a very strong connection to being Jewish and I am very honored that I can play a character that comes from the same history as mine. And I also go to a Reconstructionist Synagogue, so a tenet of that is an openness to other religions, which is sort of an aspect of what happens in the play, is that people have to change. So I feel very honored that my character in the story is following that track. It’s sort of like an added level of understanding. Quite often, most plays about Jewish people do not have Jewish actors. Most people who write Jewish plays, the authors feel at odds with their religious connection.
Alexandra: That’s very true.
Jessica: I think Sheldon [Harnick] is very honest and he’s very secular. Neil Simon is very secular. Anybody who’s historically written Jewish characters hasn’t cast Jewish people just because they don’t feel it’s necessary. So I just feel an added warmth and love for the ritual, but I just think that anybody who was connected to their religion would be honored to play somebody who was devout in that way.
I was reading an essay the other day by Elif Batuman that’s in her book on Russian literature, The Possessed. It’s an essay about Dostoyevsky, and one of the things the essay discusses is about how all of his writing is basically from an ideologically Christian point of view. Fiddler is obviously about Jewish people, but do you feel like in its ideology and structure it is Jewish?
Jessica: I think the story is Jewish in terms of the relentlessness. I do think the humor in the face of adversity is very Jewish, and that’s intrinsic to the story. I think that there are elements of that, you know. I don’t want to in anyway defame the creator’s connection to their Judaism, but I do think that they didn’t write it in hopes that people would look at it and feel that it was sort of a religious experience coming to the theatre. But, many, many people who come say that, “This is the closest I’ve come to coming to synagogue.” And you think, “That’s absurd.” It’s because there’s one song in which you light candles and we all cry? It’s that we’ve become so disconnected that any vestige of spirituality that you subject yourself to is considered religious, right?
Alexandra: Totally. And I think a lot of people have connections to the piece and the film as their connection to Judaism. One of the things I like about Fiddler—and Alisa talked about this a lot—is the different cultures that respond to it in such an ownershippy way, like the Japanese culture, the Indian culture; it goes over very differently in Poland, and how fascinating it was to be in London doing it. I remember very specifically that the girl playing Hodel with me in London got this beautiful letter from a young Indian woman who had married an English boy, and her parents had completely disowned her. It had happened three weeks before she came to see this play that she knew nothing about it, and just wrote this incredible, “Thank you for giving me an opportunity for catharsis about my own life,” letter. And I think sometimes the beauty of such incredible specificity in art is that the more specific it is, the more universal it becomes. And that any themes that have to do with love, traditions, families, a younger generation challenging the older generation—that’s going to resonate across cultures, across time. And so I think that while the specificity is beautiful and real, it’s also a key into the universality. I always talk about this when people ask this question—very few people think of Romeo and Juliet as Italians, they think of them as young people in love. And I think that’s the beauty of a universal play.
To go in a totally different direction, when we were walking here we were talking about everything that goes on this time of year. It’s not just doing the show, it’s press and all of that. And then learning how to balance that and figure out your boundaries and the learning curve of when you have to say, “You know what, I can’t do this because I have a show tonight and I need to be rested for that.” How do you do that? Because I know Alexandra was saying outside that it’s kind of something you have to learn on your own.
Alexandra: I have to say that it’s been a real learning curve for me throughout my twenties and early thirties. I used to think that when people said to me, “Oh, it will all become clear when you’re thirty,” that is was a patronizing thing for people to say. But [when I entered my thirties] I remember feeling like a bomb had gone off inside me, like I got sent a new manual of self-respect and self-acceptance and a whole bunch of things. But it’s very difficult when you’re a kind or generous person, or at least fancy yourself to be, and you want to be everything for everyone. And I think it’s that general lesson of the airplane that they teach you, about having to secure your own oxygen mask before you help anybody else—really recognizing that if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be good to anybody. You’re not really going to have anything of substance to offer. Not only the work you do on stage, but to anybody that you care about. I think we live in a culture—and it’s something I’ve really noticed teaching—that almost celebrates living on as little sleep as possible and as few calories. There’s almost a badge of honor of really getting through on nothing, on this depravity. And I think I’ve just come to learn in the last couple of years that that isn’t really a recipe for longevity and a recipe for being able to offer as much as you can for as long as you can. Because you only get one ride.
Jessica: I completely embrace that philosophy. I don’t have a lot of downtime because I have a hard time saying no, and I really love my life. I teach, as well as Al, and I’m doing a TV series now in the day because I love the project. But I don’t do it unless it’s something that I feel really interested in. But I think there’s a really small window when you get to do this thing that you care about, and I don’t act from a place of rest. I actually find my whole philosophy is, you take what you’ve experienced during the day and you bring it on the stage.
Alexandra: I love that. I do that, too.
Jessica: So I’m not interested in resting during the day, because it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been part of the process. When my acting career really took off in my mid-30s is when I had my kids, and I chose to keep going with really little kids. So it’s a certain way of working. You develop your real style in your thirties. I think in your twenties, you’re figuring it out. From 34 on, I had kids, so I just kept bringing them with and that was part of it. And so I don’t really know another way to be. But interestingly, my son said this to me the other day, “You’re so frazzled. Why don’t you hire someone to help? Why don’t you hire someone to clean and help and cook?” I said, “I would never hire someone to clean and cook and be in our house. Like, why don’t you help?” And he said, “But you seem like you so want to be there for us and have these dinners with us and have life continue normally, but you’re so busy.” I said, “But emotionally, I do want life to continue normally. We’ve always lived this way. Just ‘cause the house is dirty doesn’t mean we can’t have a great time. So clean the house! I’m not going to hire someone! Because why? Because for this sixth month period I have more income than usual? I assure you when I finish this and go back to doing plays at Playwrights Horizons, I won’t have any money. So you’ll appreciate that I put some in the bank.”
Alexandra: Totally, totally, totally. Also, you’re a grown teenager! You can vacuum!
Jessica: Yes, of course! You can put all of this crap in the dishwasher. But I think it’s about the way you learn to act on stage—when you really cauterize a way of working and figure out, “This is the way I work,” which happens a lot in your thirties when you’re given these opportunities. If you’re doing that from a place of centered calm and time on both sides of rehearsal, and you feel like your life is set up primarily to make your acting as good as possible, I think that’s what you are always seeking. But I think if you come from a place of chaos often, that’s what you’re used to, and you create chaos. And so I don’t know what’s going to happen when my kids go to college. I’ll have this time…
Alexandra: You’re going to learn Japanese or something.
I have to say that’s maybe one of my favorite anecdotes anyone has ever told about being a mother and working in theatre.
Jessica: Yeah, right? I mean, hello! He was like, “But you have the money! You can do it.” I don’t want anyone in my house, first of all…
Alexandra: I just also love that you’re like, “This is called a vacuum. This is how it works.”
Jessica: I think because my psychological state is the same, it’s like, “I’m still capable of talking about your feelings, it’s just a really trashed house.” That was on Mother’s Day, by the way, that discussion.