TO LIFE ON AN­OTHER STAGE

Folk singer-song­writer Lior is draw­ing on fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence for his mu­si­cal the­atre de­but, dis­cov­ers Si­mone Fox Koob

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Fid­dler on the Roof

It was never go­ing to be a light, fluffy pro­duc­tion that coaxed Lior At­tar from his singer-song­writ­ing ca­reer to mu­si­cals. The 40-year-old, who ad­mits that he “doesn’t love all mu­si­cal the­atre”, knew that if he were to make the leap, there was only a hand­ful of pro­duc­tions that could con­vince him to tread the boards.

Cer­tainly Fid­dler on the Roof, the pro­duc­tion in which he will make his mu­si­cal the­atre de­but, is not a story steeped in fairy­tale gai­ety. The tale of fa­mil­ial com­plex­ity, of dis­pos­ses­sion and re­li­gious con­flict, and the rigid­ity of tra­di­tion set in turn-of-the-cen­tury tsarist Rus­sia pre­sented a depth of cre­ative ma­te­rial the Is­raeli-born mu­si­cian could not re­sist.

“They really did just nail it in terms of invit­ing me to what is prob­a­bly my favourite piece,” says the mu­si­cian, bet­ter known as Lior, who is speak­ing from Mel­bourne where re­hearsals are un­der way for a new pro­duc­tion of Joseph Stein’s 1964 mu­si­cal. “I’m drawn to mu­sic the­atre that has a bit more of a raw­ness, of a real­ness and au­then­tic­ity. It really has that.

“To be hon­est, it’s not some­thing I thought I would do. But I’ve al­ways had a lot of love for that par­tic­u­lar play. I think it’s a beau­ti­ful and univer­sal piece.”

It is a change of pace for Lior, who has be­come a main­stay on the live mu­sic cir­cuit dur­ing the past decade with his melodic, lyri­cal style of folk-pop. He be­gan re­hearsals for the Fid­dler soon af­ter fin­ish­ing the lat­est in a long line of na­tional tours that marked the 10th an­niver­sary of his de­but and best known al­bum, Au­tumn Flow, an in­de­pen­dently re­leased record that gar­nered him na­tional pop­u­lar­ity. Led by the soft, lilt­ing sin­gle This Old Love, the al­bum earned him three ARIA nom­i­na­tions and kick­started a mu­si­cal ca­reer in which he has re­leased five albums.

“I did the 10-year an­niver­sary tour and it seemed to close a beau­ti­ful loop of a decade which started with this al­bum,” he says. “I just thought, I don’t feel a press­ing, urg­ing fire to jump into an­other al­bum.”

As he searched for a new project, a re­vived Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion of Fid­dler was in its early cast­ing stages. It has been 10 years since a sub­stan­tial com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion of Stein’s mu­si­cal has been pro­duced for the Aus­tralian stage, but the nar­ra­tive at its heart, based on sto­ries of Jewish life by Sholem Ale­ichem, still finds in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences al­most five decades af­ter its pre­miere. The story of fam­ily pa­tri­arch Tevye and wife Golde, grap­pling with the dis­in­te­gra­tion of old Jewish tra­di­tion as their daugh­ters marry out­side con­ven­tion, won nine Tony awards when it pre­miered and has been in re­vival sea­sons world­wide since.

Lior comes to the work in the role of an im­pov­er­ished young tai­lor called Mo­tel, des­per­ate to marry his child­hood sweet­heart Tzei­tel against the wishes and tra­di­tions of her fa­ther.

“To use a Yid­dish word, he’s a men­sch,” says Lior. “He’s a good man who, I sup­pose, starts very gen­tle and through­out the play he really finds him­self and finds his cen­tre and be­comes a man. There’s a res­o­nance with that char­ac­ter that I’m cer­tainly dis­cov­er­ing through the re­hearsal process.”

This res­o­nance lies be­yond an af­fec­tion for his char­ac­ter. In an in­trigu­ing con­nec­tion, Lior has found res­o­nance with the mu­si­cal through his an­ces­try: his mother’s grand­par­ents were Rus­sian-Pol­ish Jews, reared at the turn of the cen­tury in the same set­ting and con­text as the mu­si­cal.

“They would have been brought up in very re­li­gious fam­i­lies. Pretty much all Jews pre the Holo­caust grew up in re­li­gious fam­i­lies, es­pe­cially in that area. So I was very close with the grand­par­ents on that side, and a lot of those cul­tures and man­ner­isms. They weren’t re­li­gious them­selves but they ob­vi­ously car­ried a lot of that through. So grow­ing up I was ex­posed to a lot of that.”

While the de­ci­sion to take on Fid­dler was not based solely on this cul­tural fa­mil­iar­ity, he says it in­formed his un­der­stand­ing and re­la­tion­ship with the mu­si­cal. “Go­ing into a new art form, there is no doubt that I felt a sense of con­fi­dence, to dive into the deep wa­ter so to speak, be­cause it was an en­vi­ron­ment where I had a bit of an insight into the cul­ture and the tra­di­tion and the lan­guage. I think if it was a play that was set in a world I didn’t know and didn’t understand then I might have felt that it would be too daunt­ing to step into both an art form and an en­vi­ron­ment that I don’t know much about.”

As mu­si­cal the­atre de­buts go, he is in good com­pany. In the lead role of Tevye is mu­si­cal the­atre vet­eran An­thony War­low, re­cently re­turned home from ma­jor roles as Daddy War­bucks in An­nie and re­plac­ing Kelsey Grammer in Find­ing Nev­er­land on Broad­way.

The pre­vi­ous Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion of Fid­dler on the Roof, launched in 2005, also boasted a su­per­star at­trac­tion in the form of Chaim Topol. The Is­raeli ac­tor is syn­ony­mous with the Rus­sian pa­tri­arch Tevye, play­ing the role in the orig­i­nal West End pro­duc­tion in the late 60s; again in the Nor­man Jewi­son 1971 film adap­ta­tion that was nom­i­nated for eight Os­cars and won three; and a hand­ful of in­ter­na­tional re­vivals through­out the past 40 years, in­clud­ing in Tokyo and Mel­bourne.

War­low will have strong sup­port by his side, with wife Golde played by Sigrid Thorn­ton. “It’s an amaz­ing cast. I find my­self in re­hearsal on stage kick­ing my­self, think­ing I can’t be­lieve it. It’s like the work ex­pe­ri­ence kid to be stand­ing with Sigrid Thorn­ton and An­thony War­low,” says Lior.

For a

folk singer-song­writer,

Lior’s ca­reer in­cludes many un­con­ven­tional ven­tures, from chil­dren’s mu­sic — many par­ents will recog­nise the end lul­laby of the ABC chil­dren’s pro­gram Gig­gle and Hoot, which he claims has been one of the “most pop­u­lar songs” he has writ­ten — to what he con­sider “un­doubt­edly” the high­light of his ca­reer, a project with Nigel West­lake.

Com­pas­sion, an or­ches­tral song cy­cle in which he col­lab­o­rated with the Aus­tralian com­poser, fuses the mu­si­cal stylings of the artists with lyrics from He­brew and Ara­bic texts. It came from a place of “tragedy and tri­umph”, writ­ten af­ter the death of West­lake’s son, Eli, in 2008. The pair per­formed the work with the Sydney, Mel­bourne and West Aus­tralian or­ches­tras through­out 2013, and it earned the pair the ARIA award for clas­si­cal mu­sic last year.

“Nigel and I could both con­fi­dently say that nei­ther of us in our re­spec­tive ca­reers have had a re­ac­tion to any­thing we’ve done like what we’ve had with Com­pas­sion. The shows, peo­ple were com­ing up and say­ing the most amaz­ing things. All the pas­sion that we poured into the work just came back and hit us in the face harder than we ever imag­ined.”

Next year will see the pre­miere of a the­atre score Lior wrote to ac­com­pany a new Queens­land The­atre Com­pany pro­duc­tion called The Wider Earth, a reimag­in­ing of Charles Dar­win’s voy­age on the HMS Bea­gle with the Dead Pup­pet So­ci­ety. It seems no genre is off lim­its. Will writ­ing a mu­si­cal be next?

“It’s funny, one of the things that this ex­pe­ri­ence with Fid­dler is teach­ing me is that never say never; you can’t close your­self off to any­thing,” Lior says.

“There is no point pi­geon­hol­ing gen­res or styles. It’s about what you can bring to it. I think for me it’s about orig­i­nal­ity above all. If I can really feel like I can bring some­thing in­di­vid­ual to this, then I’ll do it.”

opens at Mel­bourne’s Princess The­atre on De­cem­ber 29 and in Sydney at the Capi­tol The­atre from March 24.

Lior At­tar, left, finds some­thing fa­mil­iar about Fid­dler on the Roof; Mark Mitchell and An­thony War­low in re­hearsals, above

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