The funny, heartfelt stories of Sholom Aleichem were turned into what became Fiddler On The Roof. Now Saul Reichlin’s one-man show, Sholom Aleichem In The Old Country, imagines the writer’s return to his old hometown, along with the hilarious adventures he had once back there. It’s currently running at London’s Lion & Unicorn Theatre, in Kentish Town, until 25 November 2018.
Here Saul tells Mate Anne Cox why he wanted to return to the work of this funny and remarkable man’s work. For the full interview, visit the Stage Review website.
How did you first come across the work of Sholom Aleichem?
On the way to Cape Town to see my mum, I stopped in Johannesburg to visit some relatives, and, browsing their bookshelves, I spotted a book of short stories by Sholom Aleichem.
“Ooh, can I borrow this?” I asked, waving the little book. “You can have it” my cousin Ekkie said, “Your mother gave it to us years ago”.
And so my mother, in effect, placed in my hands the work of Sholom Aleichem, which she loved so much, and which were to change my life. I worked on the stories, adapting them to my needs, ie for a one-man stage performance. So my first venture into the work of this great writer started, with Sholom Aleichem, Now You’re Talking!
The show has now played to 35 cities in eight countries, including seven weeks in London, nine weeks Off-Broadway and eight weeks at the Chicago Jewish Theater. Since performing this wonderful material, my working life has taken on a meaning and purpose it never had before.
How would you describe Aleichem to those not familiar with his work?
On my opening night in London, in 2003, an Indian lady and a Chinese lady, who were both lecturers at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, told me that Sholom Aleichem was hugely popular in India and China, being seen as a writer of the masses.
I realised that in writing so specifically, about the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people in a small ghetto town in Russia, he had made the stories universal, and so Fiddler On The Roof, which derives from his stories, became one of the most popular shows of the 20th century.
I am most gratified to find that non-Jewish audiences have taken to Sholom Aleichem’s gentle humour, sometimes funny, sometimes a bit sad, but always warm and human. They are an important part of my audiences, for not only the Jewish audiences, who adore him, but everyone seems to share in the legendary Jewish humour.
Do you have a favourite of his stories/characters?
I have to say that my audience favourites, Tevye and Menachem Mendel, have become my favourites. In the new show the great man is himself the ‘straight man’ and the characters he meets on his return to Kasrilevkeh (the Anatevka of Fiddler), provide the humour.
One night, in Hampstead, when people were actually queuing in the street to get in, my stage manager came to me in the dressing room to tell me that we were sold out, but a man had driven all the way from Manchester, and couldn’t face driving all the way back without seeing the show.
“But where are we going to put him?” I asked. “Well”, he said, “we could put him on the stage”. “Okay”, I said. And we did, and he smiled all the way through, and the audience loved it.
Of course, there are lots of special moments and times along the way, such as meeting Jackie Mason over lunch at the Russian Cafe in the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, New York. What a thrill.
He was tucking into a huge plate of bacon, and when I said “Is this a good meal for a Jewish boy? An ex-Rabbi?” he shrugged and said “Atkins diet”, in a way that only he could. I burst out laughing, and we met regularly after that.
Sholom Aleichem in the Old Country runs 30 October to 25 November 2018 at the Lion& Unicorn Theatre, 42-44 Gaisford St, London NW5 2ED. Performances (75 minutes) run Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, with Sunday matinees at 6pm. Tickets are priced £14 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!