John Preece has had more wives than he can remember. But before anyone starts thinking he's some sort of extreme polygamist, know that those wives are the women who have played opposite him in various productions of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Preece, 64, has devoted much of his career as an actor to the role of Tevye the milkman, a character inspired by the stories of Sholem Aleichem. Preece has followed in the footsteps of Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Topol, Alfred Molina and Harvey Fierstein, all of whom enjoyed success playing Tevye.
“I started performing in ‘Fiddler on the Roof' back in 1970, first as Lazar Wolf and then as Tevye,” Preece said recently. “When I was in my 20s and 30s, I naturally carried myself differently. Now, after countless performances, I've really grown into the role.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” is often considered the last musical produced during what is widely referred to as the golden age of the musical theater. The original production, which opened on Broadway in September 1964, ran for nearly eight years and became the longest-running musical of its era.
Featuring a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, “Fiddler on the Roof” made hits of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Tradition.” In addition to winning Tony Awards for Bock and Harnick's tune-filled score, “Fiddler” earned an additional eight Tonys including one as best musical of the season. “Fiddler” has returned to Broadway for revivals mounted in 1976, 1981, 1990 and 2004.
While Tevye is the musical's main
“Many actors think this is a one-man show and go after it for their own glory,” Preece said. “That's not fair to the others. ‘Fiddler' is an ensemble piece. Without the other characters, there wouldn't be much going on.”
In much the same way the musical's dynamics change according to the relationship between Tevye and his wife, Golde, so too does it vary depending on the young ladies who portray Tevye's five daughters.
“I try to treat them like a father would treat all the daughters he loves,” Preece said. “Each actress brings a different element to their character. Some are very emotional, some are less so. You play differently according to the strengths of the actors who play them.”
Having played Tevye on and off for more than 40 years, Preece noted that he still finds aspects of the role that intrigue him. That constant exploration of a character, even one as familiar as Tevye, can yield some unexpected pleasures.
“Tevye is a bit different from the other men in the show because he lives with six women,” Preece said. “His point of view is naturally influenced by all of them. He weighs everything they tell him, but
Any actor who has performed a role as often as Preece has played Tevye might tend to push the boundaries in which the character exists. In the 1970 musical “Two by Two,” for example, Danny Kaye took untold liberties with the show, often ad-libbing and adding comic asides for the benefit of unsuspecting audiences.
Preece takes a narrower view of such extravagances, preferring to stick to
“I've learned that just saying the lines gives you everything you need,” Preece said. “The laughs that were there 20, 30, even 40 years ago still work today. After playing Tevye more than 1,900 times, I just do the character the way it's written, and that's how it is.”