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Interview: Adam Grupper Is FIDDLER's Rabbi Plus Two

By: Jan. 26, 2016
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Adam Grupper wears many hats around the shtetl.

In addition to his primary role­-the voice of wisdom as Fiddler on the Roof's rabbi -he pinch-hits for Tevye (Danny Burstein), a character called the King Lear of musicals. He's also the understudy for Lazar Wolf (Adam Dannheisser). He recently batted for Tevye when Burstein's voice gave out.

"I went on for Danny during a holiday week when there were extra shows," Grupper said. He had been meticulously learning lines since rehearsals began. "I watched the monitors and from backstage."

One Saturday night the stage manager gave him a heads-up. "He said, 'Danny's not feeling well.' I looked at Danny and he was making a cutting motion on his throat," Grupper said. "He was on vocal rest."

Grupper prepared that night by rehearsing the first act on the subway ride home. He ran through the second act early the next morning. His typical Sunday routine was to take his 14-year-old daughter to Mandarin class. A call came at 11 a.m. confirming he was on. His daughter found another ride.

"At the theater, I was calm, getting in the right frame of mind," he said. "I resolved not to try to be perfect, just focused on connecting with the cast. It went great. I made a couple of mistakes-nothing major," Grupper said.

He views this production of Fiddler as one that resonates today. "It's a story we all fell in love with," Grupper said of the musical that weaves tradition, political unrest and Jewish persecution in the shtetl of Anatevka. "The piece is universal-you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate it. It's not just relevant because of the family, it's relevant because of the current refugee crisis," he said.

"It's a Fiddler not just for people who know it, it's for people who have never seen it before," Grupper said. "It's for people who are seeing it for the ninth time and for people who have no reference point."

Grupper brings a unique perspective to his role of the rabbi. "When I was cast as the rabbi, I didn't want to play him droll and doddering," Grupper said. Director Bartlett Sher had a different concept in mind. "He thought the character was someone of enormous strength in the community. They look to him for everyday wisdom and guidance," he said.

"The rabbi is the conscience of the village, the person you turn to. The rabbi is exalted and wise but also helps in everyday negotiations," he said. "He's available for ritual and broader questions about meaning and spiritual needs. And he has funny moments," Grupper said, "not shticky Borsht Belt moments, genuine humor."

It's a physical show: actors walk on stilts and dance with bottles atop hats. During one scene, pillows fly. "It was giving Bart nightmares," he said. "Thankfully they installed a net over the orchestra pit. It caught a pillow that went flying in the wedding scene and once a cup landed close to the conductor's face," he said.

Grupper, who had planned to be a clinical psychologist, remembers performing at an early age. "My first show was in fourth grade when we did 'How Boots Befooled the King,'" Grupper said. "I remember thinking this was something I love to do. I impersonated what I saw on TV. I had a ventriloquist's dummy and put on shows."

His parents were theater buffs. The soundtrack of his childhood was a near-constant loop of "My Fair Lady," "West Side Story" and "Fiddler." "That was my trinity," he said. "I remember sitting and staring at the album covers and imagining the scenes."

After his kids were born, Grupper cut back on his stage time. "There was a period when I hadn't been on for a long time because the hours were so family unfriendly," he said. "I did a concert of songs from 1968 musicals at Town Hall after very little rehearsal. "I hit the stage and had to sing off book. I had this moment when I didn't know what the next line was.

"It's very hard to go up when singing," Grupper said. "The orchestra is moving along but in that moment I allowed myself to do a trust fall with myself. Not only did I find another thing to say, it scanned and I got a little laugh. It was a really enlightening moment for me and informed me when I went on as Tevye," he said.

"Fiddler captures the human experience in all its best and worst ways," Grupper said. "It reminds us to hold people we love a little bit closer and to weep for those who are being exiled today.

"That's why 50 years later people are lining up around the block to see it."

Fiddler on the Roof is playing at The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway.