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Conversation with Jessica Hecht

Connecticut’s “Golda” talks about Broadway’s new production of “Fiddler on the Roof”

By Judie Jacobson

NEW YORK, N.Y. — A new Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” opened Dec. 20, directed by Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher, who, by all accounts, brings a fresh vision to this theatrical masterpiece by Tony winner Joseph Stein and Pulitzer Prize winners Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The new production features movement and dance from acclaimed Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter, based on the original staging by Jerome Robbins. It stars Tony nominees Danny Burstein and Connecticut native Jessica Hecht.

Born in Princeton, N.J. in 1965, Hecht grew up in Bloomfield, Conn. where her mother and step-father still live. In 1987, she earned a BFA in drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Professionally, Hecht was a featured cast member in the Jonathan Silverman sitcom, The Single Guy, also had recurring roles on the hit TV shows, Friends and Breaking Bad. Her films include Sideways, The Town, The English Teacher and J. Edgar. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in the revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.”

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Hecht about her local roots, acting, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Q: Tell us about growing up Jewish in Bloomfield, Conn.

A: I grew up in Bloomfield and I gravitated to Judaism of my own accord. My father was profoundly secular and my mother was raised in a fairly observant home, but was secular herself. But I had this interest in Judaism. For whatever reason, I sought it out on my own. It’s funny because my stepfather, who is a psychiatrist, said sometimes there is like a certain chemical make-up of people who are observant – that the DNA of certain people actually prompts a certain interest in spiritual observance.

I went first and for a short time to Tiferes Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Bloomfield. I then was bat mitzvah at Tikvoh Chodoshah [now B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom]. It was very moving because Rabbi Bodenheimer [z”l] had been ordained in the camps and he and his wife were Holocaust survivors. He was extremely serious, but when it came down to it he actually had a total heart of gold; I recall this moment standing on the bima during my bat mitzvah, and I just lost my place – I was utterly flummoxed and didn’t know what to do. And Rabbi Bodenheimer, who seemed a very old man at the time, slowly walked across the bima with this little smile on his face, as if to say, “It’s going to be fine.” He stood next to me with the pointer and showed me where we were, and I remember   feeling so touched by him in my 13-year-old embarrassed way.

Q: Was it growing up in Bloomfield that you were bitten by the acting bug?

A: I wasn’t the kind of kid that danced around the living room and thought I was going to be an actress. I felt it a little bit later. I did “Damn Yankees” at the [Mandell] JCC and it was an incredible ‘coming-out’ experience for me. I had never sung or done a musical before; now 35 years later I’m doing it again – I guess every 35 years I try! It was the JCC’s teen theater program run by David Jacobs and I really felt for the first time how amazing it was; I’m actually making someone laugh or smile, I thought. Later, I became the drama counselor at the JCC’s Camp Shalom. I loved it and that was really the start.

Before I went to Tisch], I went to Connecticut College in New London for just a short time and I had this remarkable acting teacher, Morris Carnovsky, who was quite a famous actor and one of the founders of the Group Theater [in New York City]. He has this insane connection to “Fiddler” because he was one of the first actors to help develop – unbeknownst to him — the character of Tevye by doing early productions of Sholom Aleichem’s stories. Early on, they were trying to see how Sholom Aleichem’s stories could morph into a play because Sholom Aleichem, who was already an icon in Russia, had come to America in hope of becoming a star as a theatrical playwright — and his first two productions bombed immediately… So, several members of the Yiddish theater and the Group Theater were trying at the time to bring this story of Tevye the Dairyman to life and Morris Carnovsky, was one of the first people who tried to interpret that character.

Q: How did you come to be cast as Golda in this new production?

A: The first time I heard about the production was two years ago at a gala for TCG – Theater Communication Group — that I was hosting. Sheldon Harnick, “Fiddler”’s lyricist was preparing to make a speech honoring Jules Fisher, a famous lighting designer. So, he and I were both backstage in the green room preparing to go on and Sheldon, a very charming guy and a great raconteur, who was then 90 years old, was telling me that “at this age I’m going to have yet another revival of “Fiddler” on Broadway and Danny Burstein is going to play Tevye.” And as we were chatting, in the back of my head I thought, I should take singing lessons. I just started fantasizing about it — but I wasn’t going to say anything to Sheldon. Because, although I sing in synagogue in my choir and I love it, at this stage of my career no one is going to consider me for musicals.

Then, last April, I got a call from my agent saying, “I don’t know if you would ever be interested in anything like this, it’s not something you usually go for, but they’re doing a revival of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Would you want to meet the producer and director and talk about it? And I said “sure” — which really surprised my agent. But I had no idea how to prepare for it. So, two days later — the day before the audition — my agent said, “Go on YouTube and watch the video of the movie.” I did, and I really worked on that song from the video of the movie; and I went in…and the accompanist played the song in a completely different key. I was mortified. But they said, “It’s actually much better than we thought it would be… You sang none of the notes but it’s kind of musical in its own way.” I had no idea what I was doing, but we made it through, and the director said “give yourself credit, I’m going to bring you in many more times, this is not a done deal in any way, but trust me it’s not as bad as you thought.”

A month later, I come in and Danny is standing there and then I completely understood what this art form is: You’re actually singing to someone and you just set it to music. There’s nothing like being able to connect to somebody; to free what you’re doing emotionally. So, it was a whole transformative thing.

Q: This show is reported to be both different and the same as the original production. What sets it apart?

A: One main artistic difference is that it’s the first time it’s being performed without the original choreography. The Jerome Robbins Foundation insisted on their choreography being used for 50 years, until we requested permission to use a different choreographer. I’m sure it’s been requested before, but we wanted to have a remarkable Israeli choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, do the choreography. In some way it’s inspired by Jerome Robbins, but it’s completely its own thing; it’s very tribal, very Israeli, very based on folk dance — which a lot of his work is — and it’s very athletic and almost Chasidic. It’s magnificent. The majority of the dance ensemble are serious modern dancers.

Another difference is that many, if not a majority, of the performers are actually Jewish, which is historically not true of “Fiddler” or of most plays about Jews. I’ve done Neil Simon plays, etc., and they often don’t cast Jewish actors. I think in some ways that‘s because when those plays were written there was a lot of conflicting feelings about the playwright’s relationship to his Judaism. If you read Wonder and Wonders, Alisa Solomon’s book about the creation of “Fiddler,” Zero Mostel, who was raised very Orthodox, Jerome Robbins, all these guys, weren’t observant at all and they were very conflicted about that. Even though some of them actually grew up with many of these traditions, they had eschewed them. And so, they’re coming at it from a complicated place.

Q: A rabbi came in and worked with the cast?

A: Yes, we had a remarkable rabbi who really talked to us and, up until the other day, was giving us notes on the way in which you would bless your kids at the Sabbath table; etc. Moments of ritual that we want to get right.

We’re fairly respectful of the attempt to be spiritual. We’ve had a couple of Shabbat dinners together, and we do a little niggun [Jewish religious melody] on Friday nights. We have a nice level of reverence for Jewish tradition.

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