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Second Fiddle

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So Harvey Fierstein takes over as Tevye tonight. Codes of liberal civility do not permit anything akin to the reckless charges of “ethnic cleansing” aimed at Alfred Molina when he debuted in the role, but there’s still plenty of discomfort about the notion of a drag queen playing the archetypal Jewish father. This time it’s being expressed through the veil of humor.

Anticipating his arrival, Forbidden Broadway sent out an actor to sing “If I Were a Straight Man” with Fierstein’s signature rasp, and in interviews the Hairspray star invokes his own Yiddish-peppered, Bensonhurst childhood to prove his fitness for the role. “I have far more in common with Tevye than with Edna,” he told the Daily News; the Times notes he is growing out his own gray beard.

It should go without saying that Harvey Fierstein should be evaluated on his performance, not his sexuality, although the dissonance only helps the producers. The casting decision cannily exploits the national hysteria about gay marriage and parenthood while tapping into old insecurities about Jewish masculinity. Though headlines like “Playing It Straight” question whether Fierstein is man enough to play Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof is the story of Tevye’s emasculation: powerless to fend off the Cossacks, can’t even control the women of his household. Israeli machismo developed in reaction to men like Tevye—the meek and landless peddler, the soft man of learning. Scholars in queer studies have unearthed and embraced his type as an alternative model of manhood.

Fiddler is a Broadway musical that has somehow become much more than that. Many treat its score as liturgy, a performance as a religious ritual. But it’s no more than pantomime—a kind of Jewish drag. This may make Fierstein perfect for the role: “This show has made me so Jewish,” says the actor. But he’s no different than anyone—male or female, gay or straight—who looks to Tevye and Fiddler as a touchstone of ethnic identity.

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Second Fiddle

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