The classic 1964 musical Fiddler On the Roof arrives in Thousand Oaks on Thursday, March 9 and prior to opening we had a chat with Mary Beth Webber, who plays the part of Yente in the show. Mary Beth is jubilant and honored to join this amazing cast and crew as she makes her national tour debut. Her favorite roles include M’Lynn (Steel Magnolias), Elsa (The Sound of Music), and Mama Noah (Children of Eden), however, her most important role to date is Mom to her seven daughters.
VCOS: Tell me about the different audiences you see on a national tour?
Mary Beth: It does vary lightly. There are certain things that pretty much across the board get the same reaction but every once in a while we’ll get some interesting laughs in places where we don’t usually have them and it’s always a joy when something unique like that happens at a performance.
VCOS: When you’re playing in a static location like in a theater on Broadway, as opposed to on a tour, are there adjustments you make in your performance to keep it fresh?
Mary Beth: Certainly when you’re on tour and you’re traveling and you’re moving about you really have to stay grounded and you have to focus on self-care, which is not something that I’m really good at, so I’ve had to really learn to take it easy, make sure that I get enough rest, because the traveling does take a toll. As far as when you’re staying in one place, I think the most important challenge there is keeping it fresh. Because you aren’t traveling and playing in different venues and you’re playing in that same spot all the time, you just don’t want it to become rote. You want it to be fresh and alive every night.
VCOS: Is Yente a character where it’s easier to do that?
Mary Beth: Yente is the matchmaker, the nosy townlady who kind of gets into everyone’s business, spreads all the rumors, and it’s a great role. I’m having a ball! But it’s interesting because it’s never boring to be Yente. She just has a great time, she’s in everyone’s business and honestly, I do discover something new at every performance about her. There’s always a different nuance that I didn’t notice before. Or if a character is doing something I hadn’t noticed, I can play off of that.
VCOS: Nothing really seems to get her down for very long, does it? She seems to be basically a pretty positive person.
Mary Beth: She is, and you know, that’s one of the themes of this musical and one of the reasons why it has endured for so long. It’s the resilience of these people and how they can be facing absolutely devastating circumstances but then they turn around immediately and begin picking up the pieces and moving forward, even with humor, which is pretty astounding. I think that’s why people love this show. It’s very uplifting.
VCOS: What has been your experience being exposed to Jewish culture prior to this?
Mary Beth: I grew up in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in Alabama and I was very active with the Jewish community centers, especially in Birmingham where they have a very lovely theater. It’s just a very rich culture with wonderful people and it’s so endearing to be able to share this story, especially at this time. This story is so relevant, given all that’s going on in the world right now.
VCOS: Can you elaborate on that a little for me?
Mary Beth: Well, the story takes place in 1905 in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia, which is modern-day Ukraine. So, no secret there, this story just resonates on so many levels there. The Russian tsar is forcing the Jewish people out of their homes and out of their villages and many of them have to leave for America and give up their communities that they’ve been in for generations, so it’s a very turbulent time and there’s a lot of social change happening. Even at the end of our show, Tevye, our lead, gives a speech that dedicates every performance to the people of Ukraine who are experiencing similar oppression and devastation today.
VCOS: I see by your resumé that you have experience with various dialects.
Mary Beth: (laughs) Oh, no!
VCOS: Do you have a dialect coach for this show?
Mary Beth: Absolutely. That’s something very important to this show, keeping it true to the characters, to the time period, and also there are certain elements of humor and there is a certain lilt that has to happen in the dialog, so yes, we definitely have wonderful coaches that help us through. Bartlett Sher and his wonderful wife were our coaches and have done an excellent job steering us in the right direction.
VCOS: Bartlett Sher is known for his careful attention to revivals of classic Broadway musicals and he’s become famous for that. Did he make any changes that you noticed to the traditional version of Fiddler?
Mary Beth: One of the things that Bart strives to do is that when you’re dealing with what we call a “chestnut musical,” something that is so well known and there is an expectation when one comes out to see Fiddler On the Roof, I think he tries to steer away from the shtick and the comedy and go for the heart. The humor, of course, comes out of this place of honesty and he really stresses that in the rehearsal process. He really wants to take away the campy musical theater versions that you may have seen and the stereotypes. He really wants to cut into and make these characters real and believable and I think that’s the difference that you will see in this production.
VCOS: Doing this might be hardest with Yente because the name itself has become a stereotype in itself. “Yente” has come to mean “busybody” because of this musical.
Mary Beth: It has, and I won’t lie, that’s a challenge to keep her real and her motivations genuine and not go for the shtick because that’s the inclination. But the dialog is so well written. You don’t have to play it for comedy, the comedy is there, the lines just fall perfectly the way they should to get laughs. You don’t have to work for them.
VCOS: Did you learn anything by listening to Molly Picon’s portrayal or any other actresses from the Yiddish theater who’ve done this part?
Mary Beth: I have. You know that’s one of the things coming into this role. I wanted to see what had come before me and what great work had been done. I’m fascinated, absolutely fascinated with the Yiddish version of Fiddler. I would just love to learn how to do that because it’s really touching to watch. And also very inspiring.
VCOS: Do you give Yente anything extra to do to keep her from being the one-dimensional stereotype?
Mary Beth: You know, what you have to understand about Yente is that she genuinely cares about this community. It’s her life and her lifeblood, not just her livelihood, which is very important to her, of course. She is a business woman. But also, she feels a responsibility to this community, to make sure they stay on track, as part of the tradition of a shtetl like this. If one person goes astray, it affects everyone. Everyone pays for the sins of the one stray. So she’s sort of like a herder and wants to keep everybody close to flock and do what they’re supposed to do and at the end of the show, she says, “It’s my mission to keep my people in line, moving forward.” And I think that’s what drives her more than just the superficial wanting to be nosy kind of thing. It’s a real drive for her.
VCOS: So she’s one of the chief enforcers of the traditions in the community.
Mary Beth: Very much so. I joke that she’s the most Jewish person in the show. (laughs)
VCOS: We never really see her reaction to Tevye when he permits Tzeitel to marry someone of her own choosing. How do you think she reacted to that and would she start to feel threatened by the changing of attitudes in the village?
Mary Beth: Oh I think she was very upset when she learned that her match didn’t work out. Not just for the financial reason. Of course she didn’t get paid when it didn’t work out. Also just because she sees the world slipping away through her fingers right before her very eyes. I think she would have been angry but then of course, in good Jewish fashion, she’s going to be there at the wedding to support Tzeitel and Motel. So she had to make peace with it so that she could be there at the wedding. Of course, the wedding unravels just a little bit (laughs) and those underlying feelings start to merge and come into play. Again, it’s focusing on what’s important here and that’s keeping the community together.
VCOS: I think that her best moment is in the last scene where she’s talking to Golde and expresses her sadness, but is looking forward to going to Palestine, the promised land.
Mary Beth: Always moving forward. Always. And she’s going to walk to the Holy Land. She says “If I have to walk, if I have to crawl, I’m going to get there.” Not gonna look back. Not gonna lament about how terrible things are.
VCOS: Having seven daughters, I imagine you can relate to Tevye and Golde’s family situation a little, am I wrong? What’s the age range of your girls and have they seen the show?
Mary Beth: As a matter of fact, one of my girls is with me on tour in the show. That’s kind of a little known fact! She plays Frumah Sarah, the first wife of Lazar Wolf in the ghost sequence, which is a lot of fun. She actually preceded me on tour. She was on the tour last year. I joined back in September. But my other daughters’ age range – my oldest is 31 and my youngest is about to be 21. So I had my babies for 10 years. And yes, they all have seen the show, they’re my support net and I couldn’t do it without their support.
VCOS: Are any of them married and do you have any say in that?
Mary Beth: (giggles) Oh, my goodness. This is where there is a little bit of Yente in me for sure because I’m always like “Ohhh, that could be a very nice match for you!” But I don’t think they listen to me. Young people don’t listen to anything you say. I just figured you should not express too much of an opinion too quickly. But none of them are actually married yet. One is engaged.
VCOS: So you know to be cautious.
Mary Beth: Yes, a lot of it is about knowing when to keep your mouth shut.
VCOS: Finally, I want to ask a question that I hope you’ve never been asked before. Using your imagination and knowledge of your character, if matchmaking became outdated and irrelevant in Anatevka, what would Yente have done for a living?
Yente: Good question! I think she would have been a wedding planner.
VCOS: Great answer!
Fiddler On the Roof plays at the Fred Kavli Theater Thursday through Sunday, March 9-12. For tickets, visit https://www.ticketsales.com/fiddler-on-the-roof-tickets-fred-kavli-theatre-thousand-oaks-civic-arts/event/4098675