BY CARY GINELL
High Street Arts Center’s new production of Fiddler on the Roof stars a new kind of Tevye. Randy Crenshaw has been doing voiceover work and singing in cartoons and animated features since the 1980s. His many credits include A Nightmare Before Christmas, Ice Age: The Meltdown, and The Simpsons. Burly and congenial, Crenshaw sported a full beard when I met with him for lunch this week, and we talked about his appearance in Fiddler.
VCOS: Your career has been mainly monopolized by voiceover work on animated productions. What led you to move out on stage to do live theater?
RANDY: I have three grown daughters, ages 24, 21, and 18. And they’re all musical theater buffs, real triple threats: they sing, they dance, and they act. I saw them having fun doing shows and I said, “You know, I’d like to do some shows sometime.” I’m a trumpet player by training; I started out as an orchestral trumpet player but I didn’t start singing until relatively late in my professional life. So it was almost by accident that this happened. I was in pit orchestras for most of these great musicals playing trumpet, so I knew the shows, but I had never envisioned being up on the stage. So I saw my daughters doing it and thought, “Hey, this looks like fun.” I’ve done several shows with them, and in fact, our original plan was to have my daughters audition for Tevye’s oldest daughters (laughs). Well, the best-laid plans…But they were all booked for other shows. So I asked them, “Hey, what’s the deal? You were going to be my daughters in this show.” And they said, “Well, we play that in real life.”
VCOS: So is this your first musical?
RANDY: I’ve done a couple of other performances locally. I did two shows for Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. I played Mr. Bumble in Oliver! and had a great time yelling at kids, and then in 1776 last season I played Richard Henry Lee. But really, I’m a novice in musical theater.
VCOS: You’ve spent your career mostly voicing cartoon characters. What is it like now that you’re playing someone who is real flesh and blood?
RANDY: I’ll tell you, it’s daunting. Especially in this case. Tevye is obviously a character who carries a lot of the load for this musical. I have a really terrific cast that I work with, but out of a hundred pages of script, about thirty-five pages is just Tevye dialog. I guess I have motormouth in this show! My memory skills have atrophied over many years. In my session work, I sightread what people give me, but for me to go in and memorize a whole show, do dance numbers and blocking, and all that kind of stuff, it’s novel for me and scary as all get-out.
VCOS: Do you use any experiences or characters you’ve played in the past to help channel Tevye?
RANDY: No, I’ve never played a character who resembled him. I’ve voice-acted for a lot of years. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of backers auditions for musical theater projects, but the beauty of that, of course, is that I stand in front of a microphone and read off a script. I’m voice-acting. But I never had to do any dancing, I never had to be blocked, never had to wear a costume with lights in my eyes. That’s where my acting skills had to come in. I’ve acted verbally and vocally, but not with all of this other stuff. As Tevye would say, “OY!” In the show, there’s a line that Tevye talks about solving problems that “would cross a rabbi’s eyes.” There are times when I feel like that. (laughs)
VCOS: How did you study for the role?
RANDY: I had played in the pit for it, so I knew the music fairly well. I got the script, the DVD of the movie and I just kind of immersed myself in it for awhile. Zero Mostel, of course, defined the role on Broadway, but when the movie came out, Norman Jewison, the director, went against type and went with a relative unknown named Chaim Topol, a young Israeli actor who was playing Tevye in the West End of London. He was all of thirty-five when he was doing it, so he had to have the fake gray beard and put on padding. Well, I don’t have to do any of that fake stuff. The funny part of it is that Topol didn’t want that huge personality that Zero had, so he underplayed it. I’m somewhere down the middle. I try not to play it as broadly comic as Zero did it. There was a fair amount of mugging and scenery chewing and I’m hoping that I don’t do quite as much of that. With Topol’s performance, he was so slow and deliberate. You know, he didn’t speak English until the production began. He spoke Hebrew, he was raised in Israel, so when he got his lines, he had to learn them phonetically. And even when he learned them, he was ve-ry de-li-ber-ate a-bout ev-ery-thing that he said. So much so that when he left the West End production, the story was that they had to cut about twenty minutes off the show every night.
VCOS: What’s your experience with Judaism?
RANDY: I’m not a Jew, but I have a lot of really good friends who are, so in many ways, I grew up seeing some of the speech patterns and some of the rituals, so it’s not completely foreign to me. But it’s hilarious that they’re letting one of the goyem jump in on this production. Actually, this production is really interesting because it has a fair amount of Jewish folk playing roles, so it has that touch of authenticity that some productions don’t have. I saw a production on line by Bahamians – an all-black production. The funny thing was that nobody coached them on the pronunciation of the Yiddish/Hebrew stuff, so they’re singing, “Le-Chime” – it was pretty hilarious. The guy playing Tevye was kind of like a Geoffrey Holder, the UnCola guy. But it works! That’s the brilliant thing about this musical is that it crosses all cultures. It’s been done in virtually every language group.
VCOS: The initial fear from critics was that it wouldn’t work because it was an in-group show.
RANDY: Right! And they’ve been proved wrong, thankfully. There’s a funny quote that you’ve probably heard when it was done by an all-Japanese cast, and the guy who played Tevye said, “I can understand why the Japanese can appreciate this show, but why would anybody else identify with it?” They looked at it as a show about traditional Japanese family and culture, and the patriarchal thing. But so much of that is true for so much of the world.
VCOS: Do you see yourself doing other musical theater shows after you’ve gotten this one out of the way?
RANDY: I’d love to if I get the opportunity. This one has been such a labor – but a labor of love – that I’ll have to take a little time off and think about what would be fun.
VCOS: What do you add to the show that’s different?
RANDY: I think that since I come at it as a singer and musician, I’m trying to insert personality elements into the show. It has some brilliant songs. There are ample opportunities to act in them, but there are a lot of things that can be colored and shaped just by how you approach it musically. Both Zero Mostel and Topol were brilliant actors, but they weren’t singer/musician types first and foremost. So I’m hoping I can polish certain things that can take some polish and, at the same time, not lose the dramatic impact.
VCOS: One singer who comes to mind who has played Tevye over the years is Theo Bikel.
RANDY: Exactly. A wonderful performer. I look at versions like his and think that there are some depths you can delve into musically, just by approaching it the way he does it. What a great voice. I even heard a French production of it featuring a singer who adopted a Russian name, Ivan Rebroff.
VCOS: I’ve heard him. Nobody had a wider vocal range than Rebroff did. He could sing everything from falsetto to basso profundo.
RANDY: An absolutely phenomenal voice. He was born German but his mother was Russian, so he adopted this Russian stage name and he spent his whole life singing the Russian repertoire. But he did Tevye in Paris for quite a while, in French. If you go on YouTube, you can hear him singing songs from Fiddler “en Francais.” It’s a little funny to see a German guy with a Russian name singing a Yiddish part in French (laughs). If this doesn’t prove how universal the show is, nothing does!
Fiddler on the Roof open at the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark on February 7. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar.