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Henry Goodman in Fiddler On The Roof at the Savoy

Henry Goodman

Published April 17, 2008

Henry Goodman likes nothing better than tackling a type of role he hasn’t tackled before. But attaining such variety in his career – from Shakespeare to satire, New Yorker to King of England – has taken some balancing act. As Goodman settles into his latest incarnation as Tevye in the classic musical Fiddler On The Roof, he talks to Caroline Bishop about his personal challenge to always keep doing something different…

At the box office of the Savoy theatre, a middle-aged couple are buying tickets for Fiddler On The Roof when Henry Goodman walks up to ask the staff a question. The couple don’t recognise Goodman, star of the show they are going to see this evening. Of medium height and average build, with a soft, well-spoken voice, eyes framed by endearing crows’ feet and a mass of greying curls which currently merge into a substantial beard, Goodman, off stage, blends in with his surroundings. On stage, however, he can be whoever he wants to be. “Being a chameleon is really attractive to me,” he says.

This is the man with one of the most varied careers in theatre. The 57-year-old has starred in contemporary plays (Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Kushner’s epic Angels In America, Alistair Beaton’s satire Feelgood), classics (Molière’s The Hypochondriac and Tartuffe), Shakespeare (Richard III for the RSC, The Merchant Of Venice), musicals (Assassins at the Donmar, the original cast of Chicago at the Adelphi, Richard Eyre’s Guys And Dolls at the National) and recently operetta (The Gondoliers at the London Coliseum); his roles span a broad spectrum of character traits, from the hate-filled Shylock to the weak, bumbling Nathan Detroit to the charming shyster Billy Flynn; and he has won a Laurence Olivier Award in both musical and dramatic categories.

Goodman has currently morphed into Tevye, the Jewish milkman in pre-revolutionary Russia in Fiddler On The Roof, the classic Broadway musical of rousing songs and high emotion that, says Goodman, “touches all the pleasure buttons”. Morphed is an apt description, as Goodman throws everything into his very physical portrayal of Tevye; his whole body quivers with pent-up passion and Jewish pride right from the first bars of the opening number, Tradition. “He’s a big passionate man, he gets upset, he sings, he gets drunk, he laughs, he dances, you know you really have to go through the mill. I have to be very careful that I don’t push myself too hard,” he says – hence his pre-show steam room relaxation routine.

"Being a chameleon is really attractive to me"

Goodman’s transition into Tevye has been some years coming. He was invited to play the role by Trevor Nunn at the National a few years ago, but the timing wasn’t quite right for Goodman. What’s more, gaining the rights for a London outing came with more restrictions than he would have liked. When, last year, director Lindsay Posner suggested that they do the show outside of London, at the Sheffield Crucible, “it all made sense,” says Goodman. “Much as I love the West End, the pressures are so huge. We could get the rights to do it out of London with a little bit more flexibility than if we’d done it in London at the beginning… They said ok, if you want to try out something you see how it goes and then we’ll see whether or not we’ll allow you to do that in London. They have very strict control over all that stuff.”

He feels starting away from the capital meant that when the show did come to transfer, there was “a real sense of being able to be true to what we aspired to do in the work from the beginning and not in any way pump it up, or falsify it, or cheat it in the West End, because the West End is a wonderful place but it’s also a monster. It can say ‘impress me, do this, do this’, and what we’ve tried to do is keep the frame the same as it was in Sheffield but just turn up the gas so it’s got all the right mix of oxygen and whatever,” he says, dropping in one of the metaphors that illustrate his conversation throughout.

As the proud and passionate TevyeAs the proud and
passionate TevyeThe part of Tevye, he says, is “a wonderful role, it uses all the parts that the other beers don’t reach”. A stubborn traditionalist who resists the modern influences that are creeping into the rural Russian village of Anatevka from the cities, Tevye has trouble exerting fatherly power over his daughters, who want to marry for love rather than being matchmade. Underneath his initial toughness, Tevye is a big softie, says Goodman. “He really loves them. It’s a word he doesn’t know and he’s never heard how you express that.”

With two grown-up children himself (his son has just finished RADA, which Goodman himself attended, and his daughter is training in theatre design), has he taken any inspiration for the role from his relationship with them? “It’s a bit close to the bone!” he laughs. “I think probably I suddenly realised oh my God yeah, I’m sure I’ve been grumpy and unsympathetic like this with my kids. Especially being an actor, I’ve been a bit of an absentee dad so I tend to over-compensate, when they were little particularly: ‘Ok, I’m home for Sunday and we’ve got to do this and this and this’. Like all parents you want to do the best for them, but often the best is what you think suits you, and they say wait a minute, actually it doesn’t suit me, and that’s when the friction comes, which of course this musical catches so well. I think that’s one of the reasons why the character is quite endearing, is that any family goes through these things.”

Watching their father in the show, his children would agree, says Goodman: “They smile and say, ‘oh I’ve seen you do that’. I keep thinking I’ve invented some brand new character and they say, ‘no, no, that bit’s a bit like you’.”

Inventing brand new characters is, after all, what chameleon Goodman likes doing best. He enjoys adapting to the different qualities of his alter-egos: “That’s great to be able to use yourself in a different way. It’s just nice to adapt. What I love is when the singing, acting and everything comes from a different person. I like adapting to the needs of the piece rather than bringing a dynamic that’s mine.”

"The West End is a wonderful place but it’s also a monster"

While the variety in his career is, to some extent, down to being offered varied parts (“I think people recognise that it’s in my genes and my appetite to transform and endure”), it is more about his own desire for difference and the choices he makes as a result. He says he has a sort of restlessness that is always urging him to do different things, however contented he is with his current project: “Already my head is in, ok, maybe in six months or a year I’ll do a straight play or something different.”

He hints that, although he has a reputation for having a good range as an actor, achieving such variety is not always easy. A certain part may not be offered to him simply because there is an actor out there who bears more of a similarity to the character. “If they want someone to play an English-looking/type of person, even though I might be able to act it because they think I’ve got the abilities and talent to do that, [they will] just get the person who’s like that anyway.”

"He gets drunk": with Victor
McGuire as Lazar WolfIronically, he also has to deal with this situation in reverse. As someone who grew up in a Jewish community in London’s East End, he has been offered, and has played, several Jewish characters, and he has had to be careful to resist the typecasting that could stunt his desire for variety. Those Jewish roles he has played have been diverse – the ruthless Ray Cohn in Angels In America, the embittered Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, the money-grabbing producer Max Bialystock in The Producers and now the kind-hearted Tevye – but, particularly with a production like Fiddler On The Roof, which is intentionally very loyal to Jewish traditions, he is aware of the need to steer clear of similar roles afterwards. “I look Jewish, I am Jewish, and I can play this part, so of course it’s great to celebrate what you are and what you can bring to your work. I have nothing but complete enjoyment for fulfilling that,” he explains. “But there are clichés and limitations to that that I would resist and I wouldn’t be happy about. Now, I have to honour them when they make sense in a piece like this. But what’s dangerous if you’re good at that and you make that work, then people say, ‘that worked very well, we think you’re lovely in that, we’ll have more of that’, and my job is to say whoa!”

Keeping this see-saw balanced is, he admits, an area of tension in his career. “What’s exciting for me is crossing barriers, breaking down things, but I can quite understand why writers and directors say why get someone who might be able to act it great but doesn’t maybe look quite right? So that’s a tension, an area of opportunity that we’re constantly trying to rebalance. It’s not like a chip on the shoulder, because I’ve had such a fantastic ride and amazing roles, it’s more a question of challenges to yourself rather than moaning about the business.”

The eponymous fiddlerThe eponymous fiddlerHe had good reason to moan about the business after the highly publicised blow he received when playing Bialystock in The Producers on Broadway in 2002. After taking over the role from originator Nathan Lane and playing it to 60,000 people for a month of performances, Goodman was unceremoniously fired. When asked about it, he launches into an explanation of the ethos of Broadway, of money and marketing and selling the show on the back of a star. In other words, he didn’t take it personally. While in the West End producers try to “de-star the show and make the product people-proof”, says Goodman, Broadway is more driven by the audience’s demand for a star. “Everybody within the industry tries to resist it and cast creatively, but the pressure on everybody is so enormous financially that we all succumb, on both sides of the coin – planning, management and in the acting – to self delusion and vanity,” he says, adding: “If you’re going to put a lot of money into something you want to try and secure it and I have absolute respect for that, I understand why people do it.”

He would happily return to Broadway in a musical (he has already gone back in a play – Molière’s Tartuffe in 2003) “but it’s not the be all and end all of my life,” he says. “If you look at every major Broadway actor, where do they want to be? In London. There’s a reason for that.”

Happily, the experience didn’t knock out his passion for acting. Is he still as enamoured with the profession as he was when he started out? “Yeah I am actually,” he says quietly, sounding surprised, as though he has only just realised this himself. “I’m not cynical about it. It’s the most amazing thing. I have high personal challenges that I give myself; I think it’s important to have some sort of vocabulary of aspiration of your own, a very private thing, because the profession, if you’re not careful, can knock those things out of you. I think it’s important to have those…because it just pours out of people, when they’ve got a flame inside of themselves. They might not even be able to articulate why; sometimes it’s just an innate calling. It’s gold dust. Without that you can just become a bit like everybody else.”

"If you look at every major Broadway actor, where do they want to be? In London. There’s a reason for that."

That’s not to say that he wouldn’t mind slowing down a bit. Big, passionate theatre roles take it out of him, and he does “sometimes long to do more simple, quiet things, which is more television and film”. By way of explanation he launches into another colourful metaphor: “It’s not that I take it for granted for anything, but it burns so much gas to keep that balloon [flying]…at times it’s nice to turn off the gas and let the basket settle on the floor.”

But however tired he may get, and whatever the knocks and the minor gripes, Goodman is still delighted to be doing what he loves best, in all its various shapes and forms. “For somebody who grew up in the East End and wanted to act, spent all my life training and building and growing, to be doing it at this level and invited constantly to do more and different things, it’s – I won’t be prosaic and say it’s an honour and all that – what I mean is,” he pauses, “it’s almost a shock.”

CB

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