TO LIFE ON ANOTHER STAGE
Folk singer-songwriter Lior is drawing on family experience for his musical theatre debut, discovers Simone Fox Koob
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.
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