Actor helps break a Fiddler tradition
About midway through the first act of Fiddler on the Roof (at the Opera House through Sunday) comes a moment that has some audience members searching for their programs. It comes in Tevye's Dream -- a comic number that has the show's Everyman protagonist Tevye (played by Israeli actor Topol), and his wife Golde visited by the ghost of the town's butcher's deceased wife Fruma Sarah, inventively portrayed as a ten-foot, green-faced apparition. As she sings her song, her voice reaches down into a lower register, suggesting it is either the reincarnation of Bea Arthur or the non-traditional casting of a male actor in the role always played by a woman.
And beneath the layers of Mac make-up is indeed a man -- actor Sean Patrick Doyle -- pulling a vocal sleight-of-hand on the audience.
Channeling Florence Foster Jenkins
It is a role that the 26 year old Florida native came upon through his joking nature: while at a grueling audition for dancers for Fiddler tour, he overheard the company of the current revival of West Side Story rehearsing next door. To break things up, he started singing numbers from WSS in his counter-tenor voice, as if channeling Florence Foster Jenkins, the legendary socialite-turned-opera singer for whom pitch and control were out of the question. Sammy Dallas Bayes, who was recreating the Jerome Robbins’ staging, heard Doyle and asked him if he was interested in auditioning for Fruma Sarah.
"It wasn’t something that I thought was in the cards when I entered the audition room. I was pretty nervous, though, because they asked me to sight read it on the spot. And I thought that in a show all about tradition, they would never make such an unorthodox casting choice. But they chose to break a major tradition."
Inspired by Disney villains
Not that it is easy to do. Not only must he put himself through the nightly task of making himself look scary, but perform sitting on the shoulders of another actor. "That can make singing difficult," he says. "I’m fine with the song while standing, but when I’m sitting, my diaphragm closes up. I’ve been doing it for a year, so I’m use to it."
As for the make-up, it takes him more than 15 minutes to create his haunting look. "I was a bit scared at first that the make-up might not agree with me -- I have this insane skin regimen and I try to keep as much as possible. I get facials all the time and use expensive skin products. It is rather heavy and is time-intensive. It takes me over 15 minutes to put it on. I’m a perfectionist with it, in part because they let me design the look. I was inspired by Disney villains and wanted to do something wild. I have eyebrows up to my hairline."
He, though, can’t exactly rest after the number. Immediately upon exiting the scene, Doyle removes the make-up and quickly puts on a beard and the black garb he wears as one of the wedding party for the first act finale, where he also doubles as an understudy for the show’s most famous number - the Bottle Dance, in which a number of the male wedding guests dance with bottles on their flat-topped black hats. It stopped the show when it was introduced in Washington during the show’s pre-Broadway run in 1964, largely because of it looks impossible to pull off.
("It’s a matter of poise, focus, dynamics--it’s not that difficult. After the bottles come off, that’s when it gets hard," said Bayes, who recreates Robbins’ choreography, in a 2004 interview for Dance Magazine. "He’s referring to the section he calls "whips and hooks," when the men burst into close, frenzied whirling, catching one another’s arms high in the air." Bayes should know - he danced it as part of the original cast during the show’s record-breaking run.)
Over the years rumors persist that the bottles are attached to the black hats; but, as Doyle attests, is not the case. "There’s nothing affixed. No divot. The hats are not steamed. You try to flatten out your hat as much as you can so it fits closest to your skull, and you have to constantly be thinking about the bottle."
Still, being an understudy, he lives with the chance that he may go one, especially since if one of the dancers should drop a bottle, someone else must take their place. "It’s a tradition with the number," Doyle explained. "So I live with the prospect. There are two of us who cover the bottle dancers, and I went in once. Of course it was nerve-wracking because the other boys get to dance with the bottles every single night, the two of us only get to do it during understudy rehearsals. But I think I have good balance, so I have that on my side. The trick is you have to constantly be thinking about the bottle. I don’t find it as difficult as I think it looks."
Since moving to New York after college, Doyle has been featured in international tours of Fame and another landmark Robbins musical West Side Story, which traveled to China and Western Europe. "It seems to be my fate to recreate original Robbins shows," he said laughing. In that dance-intensive show he played one of the Jets -- Baby John -- in a production staged by Joey McKneely, who recreated Robbins’ staging for the current hit Broadway revival.
McKneely even used Robbins’ psychological ploy with the cast of keeping the Jets and the Sharks separated during rehearsals and on the tour. "When I did the show it was pretty extreme. We rehearsed in Macao, China before we launched the tour in mainline China, followed by Italy and everywhere else. Being a Jet, I lived only with the Jets. If you chose to have a roommate you could not live with a member of the opposite gang. We couldn’t even have lunch with a member of the other gang. We even had nights where we excluded the other gang - We’d have Jet night, they’d have Shark night. At first we thought it was silly, but eventually it fueled what was happening on stage."
Interestingly though both WSS and Fiddler are 40+ years old, they are rarely performed professionally without Robbins stagings. The reason, Doyle thinks, rests with how informed his direction and choreography is. "No one tells the story with such integrated movement -- nothing is superfluous. The movement tells the story of these characters. I feel that without the Jerome Robbins staging - especially WSS - it would be a half-story. You learn so much of the story by watching how the Sharks move as opposed to the Jets. As in this show, the way that the Russians dance as opposed to the way the Jews dance, and in that shows so much about their characters."
While his two shows have taken him outside the country for extended periods, he did have the thrill of starring in a 12-week run of the musical Wig Out! at the Vineyard Theatre last year. "It was really, really lovely - we were highly lauded. We got a rave in the New York Times and I was mentioned. And it was great to be in a show where my peers could see me for once. It was amazing being in town with my friends, my boyfriend, I am very much looking forward to getting back to New York."
When he does get back, he’ll again face the daunting audition process for his next role. How does he handle it? "Sometimes you leave and you’re exhausted after them. Plus there are bad experiences - I had one Broadway show where I got seven callbacks, and some of these were working sessions, and I didn’t get the job. Nor was I paid anything for them. But you can also luck out. If I get a commercial or an episode of Law and Order, I can make more than I made for half of my off-Broadway run. It depends - it’s the luck of the draw. But I enjoy it. I enjoy that it is different every day."
As for what roles he would love to play?
"There are two roles I’ve done that I would welcome the opportunity to play again. I played Puck in Midsummer’s Night Dream at my very competitive high school and I’m hoping to play it professionally. And in college and summer stock played the Emcee in Cabaret, and I’m dying to play him again. And I have a passion for creating thing, so I’m hoping to play a role that will go into the American musical theater canon, then I’ll be on the original Broadway cast recording and someone will be trying to emulate my work."
But back to Fiddler, a musical about the perpetuation of traditional values, which led us to ask Doyle if Tevye were alive today, how would he respond if one of his daughters brought another woman home as her partner?
"Tevye is an everyman and part of his charm is that everything he does is rooted in tradition. But it’s not that he’s unwilling to bend. One of the things audiences love about Tevye is that he deals with these challenges, such as losing a daughter. But he changes his ways. So if he came up against this situation, he would be very conflicted; but he would re-analyze and see how it benefits his daughter. She would come first. And in the end he would be delighted."
You can see Sean Patrick Doyle in Fiddler on the Roof through Sunday, November 15, 2009 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information visit the Broadway Across America website.