Theodore Bikel creates one-man show at age 88

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July 11, 2012

The Gazette - July 9, 2012
By Pat Donnelly

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Watch the video created by George Allister

At 88, Theodore Bikel deserves a rest. But retirement doesn’t remotely interest this highly respected Broadway actor, singer, musician and author, whose relationship with Montreal dates to the 1960s when he performed a concert here at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Last year, Bikel played the pivotal role of the indulgent grandfather in the English-language musical version of Lies My Father Told Me at the Segal Centre.

Now, he’s back on the Segal Centre Stage in a one-man show of his own construction called Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, telling stories in English and singing in Yiddish as well as in English.

Meanwhile, in Stratford, Ont., Christopher Plummer, at 82, is preparing to perform his own one-man show, A Word or Two, at the Stratford Festival.

What is it with these two feisty octogenarians? Are they rivals?

“Not at all. I don’t believe there’s a rivalry at all, or ever was really,” replied Bikel in an interview last week.

He and Plummer have known each other for many years, having performed together on Broadway in 1955 in a notable production of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark.

Later in life, their careers paths crossed again when Plummer won the role of Baron Von Trapp in the iconic 1965 film version of The Sound of Music, after Bikel had created it on Broadway in 1959, opposite Mary Martin. (She didn’t make it in the film either. Julie Andrews did.)

Another thing Bikel and Plummer have in common is a reputation for never, ever missing a show. They always go on.

When Bikel performed as Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof at Place des Arts in 1996, he was 72. It was a role he has played a record 2,100 times over the years. “I was the oldest member of the cast,” he recalled. “and I was the only one who never missed a performance.”

Are he and Plummer trying to outlast each other? “Now, that may be an interesting thought,” Bikel laughed. He’s running six years ahead, after all.

But the road isn’t always smooth. Sunday afternoon’s performance of Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears was an exceptionally difficult one for him.

It was the first time he had done the show, which premiered in Washington in 2008, since his wife, Tamara Brooks, died in May at the age of 70.

She was the show’s composer, musical director and pianist. The production is now dedicated to her memory.

Outwardly, there was no sign that anything was amiss on Sunday.

Bikel, wearing a peasant shirt and sash, spoke briefly as himself before incarnating Aleichem, who, like Victor Hugo, preferred to write while standing up. Aleichem also used to wear white gloves to prevent himself from biting his nails.

In this 90-minute show, colourful stories of shtetl life in Russia, many of them tales of Tevye the Milkman and his daughters, give way, here and there, to songs.

The central question posed is a nostalgic one: “What will remain when we are gone?”

After Sunday’s performance, I spoke with Bikel a second time, asking him how he had felt about performing without his wife.

“Coming offstage was difficult,” he said. “Not being onstage. Onstage has its own momentum and its own energy that doesn’t change. And it cannot and must not be influenced by anything that’s in your life. If you can use what is in your life, use it. But you certainly don’t let it intrude. At the end of the show, I felt it.”

The couple had worked closely together since they met in 1999. They married in 2008. A Juilliard graduate, Brooks had enjoyed an illustrious 35 years as a conductor, working with orchestras around the world.

One thing that Bikel doesn’t do in Laughter Through Tears is sing If I Were a Rich Man or Sunrise, Sunset from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. (In any of the 23 languages in which he has been known to perform.)

It’s not in the cards,” he said. “This is a darker Tevye than the musical is. And I don’t even have the right to sing those songs in a show that I wrote.”

(Bikel is a man who understands rights, having served as president as well as vice-president of Actors’ Equity Association.)

In Laughter Through Tears, we learn that in the original Tevye tales, the daughter who happily marries a tailor soon ends up a young widow forced to move back in with her parents. And another son-in-law goes bankrupt.

The Broadway musical kept the bleaker side of Aleichem’s writing under wraps. This show reveals the melancholy behind the author’s gently humorous tone, while it hides the sorrow behind the jovial storyteller’s eyes.

Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, written and performed by Theodore Bikel, with musical arrangements by Tamara Brooks, continues at the Segal Centre until July 22. Tickets range from $18 (under 18), or $24 (student), $50 to $58 (senior), or regular $55 to $65. Call 514-739-7944 or visit

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