Sunrise, Sunset: Theodore Bikel Has New Horizon in View

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 22, 2008

What's a sensible age for a performer to venture a first solo show -- 21? 30?

How about 84?

Theodore Bikel -- 84 and married (again) just last month -- is ready for it. The folk singer-actor-activist has spent a lifetime performing, and now, in a rehearsal room at Georgetown University, his impressively resonant voice still sounds like thunder rumbling through a valley.

"It does not feel like working with an 84-year-old," says Derek Goldman, director of Bikel's "Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears," now playing at Theater J. Yet surely the production has made some concessions to age; the show has been trimmed from two hours to 95 minutes, and the issues in the final days had to do with precision and stamina.

"I would not call them concessions," Goldman says.

Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth says of those concerns: "That's any performer."

For Bikel, age is not a compelling issue.

"I looked up the word 'retirement' in the dictionary just to make sure it exists," he says dryly. "There's no such thing. I remember once testifying before a congressional committee about the arts and the aged, and on the day that I testified, I told them that Eubie Blake was 97 and performing on that night. And I said, 'You are serving in the Congress; did anyone ever tell you that a congressman has to retire?' "

So he has stayed busy, acting in such stage works as "The Disputation" a few seasons ago at Theater J and singing in concert last month in Paris with his quartet (Serendipity 4) and in Vienna with his wife, pianist Tamara Brooks. The project of the moment, though, is "Sholom Aleichem," Bikel's play-with-songs about the writer whose work inspired "Fiddler on the Roof."

Of this, Bikel knows a thing or two. He has played Tevye more than anyone, racking up more than 2,000 performances, shaking his fist at heaven and singing "If I Were a Rich Man."

As a boy in Austria and later in what was then Palestine, Bikel grew up with Aleichem's tales. He continues to call Tevye the easiest role of his life -- it's like playing his grandfather, Bikel likes to say -- and a few moments listening to Bikel speak of Aleichem is like listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin on presidents. The authority is unassailable.

The piece at Theater J is culled from the 18 volumes of Aleichem's writings, from his sister's biography of him, and from his unfinished autobiography ("Strangely enough, in the third person," Bikel reports. "He found it impossible to write using the personal pronoun 'I' "). In part, the subject of the show is legacy, and some of the rewriting process has involved what Goldman calls "the layering of identities" as Bikel plays himself, then Aleichem and eventually -- inevitably -- an older Tevye.

It's a bit of a reclamation project by an actor who is unafraid to critique some of the beloved shows he's been in. "The Sound of Music," for instance: Bikel was Broadway's original Captain von Trapp opposite Mary Martin, and as a World War II refugee, he knew where the story was soft.

"None of that sense of the vise around your heart," he explained to Rodgers and Hammerstein. "I talked to them about reality. They said, 'It's theater, it's musical comedy, it's good enough; the people will love it.' The people did love it. That's not the only criteria."

"Fiddler," in which Bikel has toured relentlessly, was more substantive, yet was hardly pure Aleichem -- something the current show addresses directly.

"Is 'Fiddler' the be-all and end-all of Sholom Aleichem in American theater?" Bikel asks rhetorically. "If the truth be known, it's a charming show. It's a nice show. But it is what my wife calls 'shtetl lite.' . . . A little bit of tragedy in it, but not too much. I wanted this play to give a fuller rendering of Sholom Aleichem and his world."

Rehearsing, Bikel slips easily into the Tevye section late in the play, singing with force and zest during a wedding song. The music is played live by Brooks on piano and Merima Kljuco on accordion (both are members of Serendipity 4), and Bikel not only found the songs -- largely from the canon of Yiddish folk tunes -- but also did the English translations himself.

The increased role of music is one of the biggest changes of the recent rewriting process, says Roth, who was impressed by Bikel's "encyclopedic" command of Yiddish musical history.

"What's the Yiddish equivalent of 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' " Roth says Bikel was asked at one point. "By golly, he had three songs to choose from."

Bikel coolly regales a listener with details about the melodies, the lyrics, the composers, the circumstances of each song. Of this knowledge, he shrugs: "I know the repertoire."

Apparently his catalogue of showbiz tales is pretty good, too, as you might expect from someone whose film bio alone ranges from an Academy Award nomination for 1958's "The Defiant Ones" to Frank Zappa's "200 Motels." ("The strangest experience," he says of the Zappa picture, noting that he had the sense to turn down the role of the cross-dressing nun eventually played by Keith Moon.)

According to Goldman, the anecdotes during breaks have included tales of the young Bikel being directed by Olivier in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and helping found the Newport Folk Festival. One moment the subject is rabbis, the next it's Bob Dylan.

Goldman says: "It's not just a story, but a resonant, appropriate, funny story that opens up the meaning of what we're working on." The director wondered when the tales would start repeating: "They haven't. It's new stories every time."

The new show moves to Florida next month, and Bikel is shopping it around for more dates after that. Meanwhile, he can look forward to his 85th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall next June, several weeks after the actual birthday in May. The guitarist's fingernails on his right hand are long and buffed, shaped for playing; he's ready for whatever's next.

"I'd feel guilty," Bikel says, "if I'm idle."

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