Going Places, Near & Far: Great Neck Native Adam Kantor Stars on Broadway in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Revival

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Great Neck, Long Islanders have a special reason to go to Broadway this season – more specifically, “Fiddler on the Roof,” even beyond the fact it is one of the most beloved musicals ever to come to theater. Great Neck native Adam Kantor plays Motel, The Tailor, and without any prejudice or bias born of knowing him since he debuted in sixth grade at Great Neck North Middle School as Mendel and starred as Tevye in eighth grade, I can say he is the best thing in this revival of the classic musical. 

Adam doesn’t just bring an intensity to his portrayal of Motel The Tailor, who makes his breakthrough from a meek boy into a man of character when he declares to Tevye, “Even a poor tailor has a right to happiness.” He takes on the character completely, fleshes him out – his Motel is the most fully formed, while most of the other principal roles are more superficially drawn, even two-dimensional. Adam makes this Motel is own. It is a credit to his acting. And what a voice, when he sings (as he moves vigorously around the stage), “Wonder of Wonders… God has made a man, to-day.” 

It’s a challenge to make the character his own, and yet fulfill the audience’s expectations. 

“Fiddler,” which premiered in 1964 on Broadway, is one of the most familiar shows – not just for its many professional revivals (this is the sixth revival on Broadway), but is one of the most often produced musicals by schools (ranked 7th among high school productions). In fact, we wondered how many people sitting in the audience had similarly performed it. 

This latest incarnation is a wonderful production, showcasing spectacular singing and dancing.”Fiddler” is one of the best musicals ever created, with an important story, characters you care about, sensational songs (every single one a major hit), and choreography, but more importantly, a message that transcends the test of time. 

But just as the story is about the push-pull of tradition and modernity, or preservation or progress, there is the push-pull whether to reinvent the musical for contemporary audiences, for whom the experience of pograms, forced exile and ethnic cleansing is not just of great grandparents or grandparents, but is so painfully displayed on the front pages of today’s daily newspapers. 

Director Bartlett Sher, in his attempt to put his own original stamp on the classic and make it more relevant to contemporary audiences, does something that many (including me) might consider heretical: instead of the “Fiddler on  the Roof” being the metaphor for tradition that binds the fragile existence of the Jewish people, enduring the millennia of persecution, this production becomes an allegory for Everyman/Any Man subjected to ethnic cleansing. 

Sher does this by starting the show with a bare stage except for the sign in Russian, “Anatevka”. The Tevye character comes out in a contemporary, red winter jacket, reading a book and looking at the sign – immediately, in my mind, that sends a message that this is a story, not real. The sets throughout are very bare, with the “village” floating above, like a Chagall painting (whose use of the Fiddler on the Roof images is what inspired the original authors, Joseph Stein who wrote the book, Jerry Bock who wrote the music and Sheldon Harnick who wrote the lyrics). Then, at the end of the show, when you see the people filing out, beginning their exile and their exodus, the Tevye character comes back in his modern red jacket, bare headed having taken off his head covering, reading the book again, then takes his place pulling the ox cart. 

(It is interesting to be reminded that when “Fiddler” first came out in 1964, the concern was that the show would be too Jewish, and in fact, the authors sanitized the story and made the Russian characters more sympathetic than the cruel figures that Sholom Aleichem portrayed in his Tevye stories). 

Adam, though, imbues his Motel with a fullness, a connection to the character, an authenticity that goes beyond an “Everyman” persona, always in character, from every gesture and movement and inflection. 

And In his notes in Playbill, Adam writes, “A descendent of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, he is honored to return to “Anatevka.” 

In fact, he had already “returned” to what is believed to be the real village that informed Sholom Aleichem’s “Anatevka” – as Adam writes in a marvelous story published in “The Forward” about his travels to Eastern Europe and his search for the roots and foundation of Fiddler (see My Long Journey From Anatevka to ‘Fiddler’ on Broadway), 

I raise these issues in a telephone interview with Adam Kantor. 

When you consider how many people sitting in the audience have seen ‘Fiddler,’ a classic musical, perhaps multiple times, have even performed in it as you did, how difficult to make the part your own or is the challenge to be the Motel that everyone expects?

“There is an inherent familiarity with the music and the lines. So I think about how do I make it the most authentic, interesting, and how can I support my co-players best, especially my Tzeitel [played by Alexandra Silber] and Tevye [played by Danny Burstein]. 

“Part of that was my trip to Eastern Europe with YiddishKayt (Yiddishkayt.org) – 24 artists, activists and scholars. We went to the former shtetlach [yiddish for small Jewish town or village in Eastern Europe], Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia. [Robby Peckerar, who runs the tour, Helix ] took me to villages where Sholom Aleichem lived and wrote the Tevye stories in Ukraine  (not Crimea). Kiev was tense [because of the continued tensions with Russia, the separatists and Crimea]. 

“This was a group of scholars, students, and activists and artists, a few who act (one runs a famous puppet theater in NY, another is an actor-musician who lives in Chicago). The group also included a musicologist, a novelist, a graphic artist – people who brought all different angles.” 

Taking the tour at all was beshert, as Adam writes in his imaginery letter in The Forward, “And would you believe, Sholom Aleichem, just three weeks before this excursion, the group lost its 24th traveler and a spot opened up for me?” 

I raise the issue of Director Bartlett Sher’s re-interpretation and theatrical device transformed the story (and message) from being about Jewish heritage to being a story about Everyman/Any Man. I ask, Did you have issues with the director’s approach and interpretation of the part? How much were you able to inject of yourself? Here, though, Adam Kantor surprises me.

“In Bart’s defense, he made a conscious effort in the process to maintain authenticity. He had a scholar of Eastern European history come in and give lecture about the real history, so we had a place to start. He had a rabbi come in to walk us through the ritual – while this cast is mostly Jewish, there are non-Jews, so it was nice for non-Jews to learn about the ritual, and for Jews to be reminded of meaning behind rituals or learn for first time – Shabbat and the wedding. Bart also had resources in the rehearsal room, Life is with People, [by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, describing life in the shtetl], which the original writers used, and by the photographic images of Eastern European shetl by photographer Roman Vishniac, which Jerome Robbins used. 

“His process was rooted in authentic, historical Jewish perspective and he did want to make it relatable – dealing with largest refugee crisis. 

“It’s a tough thing with ‘Fiddler’ because many people have very intimate relationship with show – they’ve seen it many times, have productions engrained in their memory, dare I say their soul.We are up against a lot. Bart was aware of that but bravely, and in my opinion rightly, put his own stamp on it, and I hope made it relatable.” 

That may be true in this time of breaking bonds with the past and with tradition (as we see in politics). But in this case, the whole moral to the story is preserving tradition against the pressures of progress – the same pressures that were underway in the early 20th century, and which we are clearly repeating in the early 21st century. 

On the other hand,  I learn that the final script of Fiddler on the Roof was dedicated “to our Fathers.” Harold Prince, the original producer, said later that the show was “clearly conceived” by Stein, Bock, and Harnick “as a kind of valentine to their grandparents.” 

And in this respect, Adam’s own homage to his heritage is in keeping with that tradition. 

Path to Broadway Set Early

Adam actually is already a veteran of Broadway: He got his big break debuting on Broadway as Mark in the final cast of Rent (preserved on DVD by Sony Pictures’ Rent Filmed Live on Broadway).  He reunited with Rent director Michael Greif in Next to Normal on Broadway, in which he played Henry.  In 2013 Adam played Jamie in the acclaimed NYC revival of The Last five Years at Second Stage, directed by its composer Jason Robert Brown. Also off-Broadway, he played Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q.  At The Old Globe, he played Proteus in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Mark Lamos, and Jeff in the world premiere of Nobody Loves You by Itamar Moses and Gaby Alter. 

Most recently, Adam played Eddie in the world premiere production of Diner by Sheryl Crow and Barry Levinson directed by Kathleen Marshall.  On TV he was seen in The Good Wife in the role of Ezra.  Adam was a co-founder of the nonprofit arts organization, Broadway In South Africa, which provided arts education to underprivileged youth in the townships of South Africa.  He graduated from Northwestern University and also studied at the British-American Dramatic Academy in Oxford, England.  

People always saw great things in you. When you were playing Tevye in 8th grade, did you ever imagine you would be on Broadway?

“I don’t know – no, I didn’t imagine this experience at this time in my life. In 6th grade, I was Mendel, in 8th grade I was Tevye with Jan Wallis and the Children’s Theater (through the Great Neck Park District]. 

“I just watched tapes of my 6th and 8th grade performances during a recent visit home to Great Neck. I had just started rehearsals. We pulled out a VHS player. I was horrified. I don’t like watching me.” 

When did you start seeing yourself as a professional actor?

“I majored in theater at Northwestern, a liberal arts school. I had academic education, but my focus was on theater. I think, even before, from the time I was 13, was going into city, and taking classes at professional studios- acting training for teens – serious programs. I was pretty serious. I did fun on-camera stuff when I 13, then when I was 15 or 16, in a summer program at Stella Adler – that was life-changing. I became obsessed with the craft of acting and wanted to pursue it in a big way. 

“Then I did another summer program at Tisch, where, my favorite teacher [Alix Korey], who really made impact on me, is now playing Yentl with me. 100% coincidence.” 

What did it mean growing up in Great Neck?

“Just growing up with such proximity to theater capital, in my opinion, one of the great theater capitals of world, and being able to take the train in on weekends, or even after school and see a show – in those days, there were $15 student tickets to a lot of shows – or take class, and  studying with a vocal coach – having the resource of New York City. I think a lot of my education was just seeing stuff – of course the proximity, and beyond proximity, having such devoted mentors like Dan Tomaselli, who was my vocal coach for years (he directed me in “Fiddler” in 6th grade) – he would come to my house and give voice lessons, rooted in classical foundation. He was the first person to encourage me. Between Dan Tomaselli [music teacher at Great Neck North Middle School], Jan Wallis [who directed the Children’s Theater], Laura Stern, Jeff Gilden and Roger Ames [teachers at Great Neck North High School]- the five of them, encouraged me the most. 

“I spoke at the naming ceremony [of the auditorium at Great Neck North Middle School] for Mr. Tomaselli – it was the day before we started rehearsals for Fiddler. 

As for this experience, playing in this cast of Fiddler, he said about his fellow actors, “I love them. They are a wonderful group, people I look up to…I  feel like I’m learning a lot. It’s a great experience, and hopefully it will continue to grow in meaning for me.” 

Fiddler on the Roof is ongoing at the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway, at 53rd Street, 212-239-6200, fiddlermusical­.com.

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