Dayton-born Mary Illes, a singular talent with a range of Broadway (She Loves Me) and nationwide touring (The Secret Garden) experiences, comes via Zoom to Orange Villages Temple Emanu El for an evening of questions and answers, open to all the public.
His resume also includes the premiere of Golde’s role in Fidler afn Dakh, the widely acclaimed Yiddish version of the enduring musical, Fiddler on the Roof. The musical is based on stories written by Sholem Aleichem that take place in a Jewish shtetl in Imperial Russia. The Yiddish translation of Shraga Friedman’s musical, on which this production is based, dates back to the mid-1960s and was first performed in Israel.
This production by Fidler afn Dakh, which was staged by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene in 2018, opened at the Lower Manhattans Museum of Jewish Heritage for six weeks, which was extended several times before being moved to the off Broadway by popular demand.
CJN met by phone with the actress at her New York City apartment to discuss her experience at Fidler afn Dakh ahead of her May 12 virtual event with Temple Emanu Els Brotherhood.
CJN: What was your experience with Fiddler on the Roof before this production?
He is: I had never acted in the show before Fidler Afn Dakh.
CJN: Tell us about your audition for the role of Golde.
He is: We were given script selections and song sound files to learn for the initial audition, all in Yiddish, and the women were instructed to dress plainly and during the performance period. I felt I had done well, but didn’t hear anything afterward, so I accepted a job with Anastasia’s First Nationwide Tour. My agent called to say that Fidler lost his Golde because she was chosen for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Rehearsals started three days later on June 4th and my last performance was July 19th when I started rehearsals for the Anastasia tour.
CJN: What was the challenge of Yiddish?
He is: I speak German and lived in Vienna for three years so I could understand about 85% of what I said in Yiddish. But every night we all had to rehearse our lines backstage just before our entries.
CJN: Harold Prince, the original producer of Fiddler on Broadway, was quoted as saying: If you’ve seen Fiddler before, you must see this production because it will make you feel like you are seeing Fiddler for the first time. Apart from Yiddish, what do you think made Fidler afn Dakh so unique?
He is: Its intimacy, its sparse ensemble, its realism. And we were all working actors, not stars.
CJN: Did Cleveland-born director Joel Gray talk about the show’s history on Broadway and have past productions and performances kept her informed?
He is: We were encouraged to find this version of this show and make it.
CJN: What is your take on Golde and what did you bring to the role?
He is: I remember thinking about my grandmothers who both grew up in small villages in Hungary, how much they had to be connected to the land, how vital and fundamental everything they did was. Golde is like that. I wanted her to be down to earth, honest and without nonsense. Plus, she knows Tevye well and won’t let him get away with anything!
CJN: Supporters of the original Broadway musical feared it was too Jewish for tourists, and the work was revised ahead of the opening. Do you think the Yiddish in Fidler afn Dakh serves to make the musical more Jewish?
He is: We have been told that Yiddish is the language that united Jewish immigrants in the last century, so no matter where you grew up you shared this amazing language. It’s always like that.
CJN: Before COVID-19, there were talks of a China tour, an Australian tour, and a national tour. Is this something you would be interested in doing?
He is: I would love to do the show again.