The voice still can thunder.
Even in conversation, away from the stage, Topol's majestic baritone envelops the listener in luxuriant sound. No matter what this man has to say, you'd want to hear it--savor it--just to revel in the crushed-velvet tone of that instrument.
Yet at 73 , Israeli singer-actor Topol--whose full name is Chaim Topol but is known by his surname--still marvels that he ever was allowed to sing in public in the first place. From the start of a performance career he says he practically stumbled into, he says he suffered from a tin ear (as did his listeners).
"I couldn't hit a note," says Topol, a few hours before opening night at the Oriental, in what's being billed as his "Farewell Tour" as Tevye.
"When I was young, sometimes the accordion would start, I wouldn't pay attention to what he played, and I would start my own way--and all the musicians would have to adjust in my key," adds Topol.
"I didn't even know that I did something wrong. All I had is the looks from the musicians, wondering 'Where are you?'"
He has come a very long way, since starring in the London premiere of "Fiddler" (1967) and in Norman Jewison's brilliant film adaptation (1971). Topol has been the definitive Tevye against which all others are measured. Add to that more than 2,500 live performances in the role on stages around the world, and he clearly will be remembered forever as Tevye the dairyman, an impoverished Jew trying to eke out an existence in a tiny shtetl in Czarist Russia.
Topol's regal voice as Tevye, though, represents just part of his appeal. The imploring way he raises his hands to the heavens as he communes aloud with God, the bounce in his step as he dances jubilantly at his daughter's wedding, the sorrow on his face as the czar's soldiers attack his village all make Tevye--and his long-vanished world--feel tangibly real.
"The first time my wife and I saw Topol was in London, and he was a very young man and quite charismatic," recalls Sheldon Harnick, the native Chicagoan who wrote lyrics to the songs in "Fiddler."
"He walked on stage and within 30 seconds we thought, 'We're yours.' He brought a great vigor and a great understanding to the role.
"We just saw him again in New Jersey at the start of this tour, and when he came out, he didn't look like a vigorous young man. He looked more frail. He looked like a man who's had a difficult time of it. His second act was even more moving than I've ever seen him doing it."
Certainly Topol appears thinner than his Tevye of old. The decades that have passed since he first triumphed in the role make his present-day Tevye seem worn, tired, almost despairing. Still, there's also a palpable love of life and bittersweet humor in this interpretation, which Topol credits, above all, to Tevye himself.
"I have seen people in high school play Tevye, guys in amateur groups, I saw Yugoslavs, Croatians, actors in Zagreb and Montenegro and Turks and Greeks playing the part," says Topol. "They are all playing extremely well, because it's a very, very good part, probably one of the best parts ever written for a male actor-singer."
An invention of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Tevye was re-imagined for the stage in the early 1960s by Harnick, composer Jerry Bock , book writer Joseph Stein and director-chore ographer Jerome Robbins . Each was a first- or second-generation descendant of Eastern European Jews and essentially modeled their Tevye on the old men they knew as children.
"In a sense, Tevye is Everyman, but every great character that has ever been written is that," says 85-year-old Theodore Bikel, another of the world's great Tevyes. "But this is one that is down to earth. Tevye is there with all of his joys and his suffering and living in an environment that is, to put it mildly, oppressive.
"Yet he manages to walk, to sing, to dance, to play, in the midst of all this mayhem."
From the start, Topol had a genetic and cultural edge in playing the role. Born in Tel Aviv in 1935 (13 years before Israel became a nation), he grew up among old, Eastern European emigres who may as well have been the Tevye that writer Aleichem created. And though most of Topol's extended family in Europe was massacred in the Holocaust, he always felt that the essence of this character was bound up in his being.
"My father's grandfather was a Tevye, and his grandfather was a Tevye. But, as I said, you don't have to be a grandson of a Tevye in order to play this part."