It was a tough sell to hire Theodore Bikel to perform at the DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J in 2004.
The contract would be for 10 weeks at “a lot of money per week,” recalls Ari Roth, artistic director of Mosaic Theater and then-artistic director of Theater J. Bikel would be the lead in Hyam Maccoby’s The Disputation, about a trial over Judaism in medieval Spain. “I had to make the case that Theodore Bikel was worth the price.”
Bikel was a staple for decades in American film, TV and theater, and in the Jewish cultural consciousness. Baby Boomers grew up with his 1960s albums of Yiddish and Hebrew folksongs. Younger viewers saw him play Klingon Lt. Worf’s adopted Russian father on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
There was the Broadway run of The Sound of Music where the Austrian-born Jewish performer played the Austrian gentile Captain von Trapp. And then there was Fiddler on the Roof — 2,000 performances as Tevye, give or take a Rich Man.
So, of course Bikel came with a price tag. “It was a lot for the JCC at the time,” Roth remembers.
And nobody knew if a Washington audience would come to see Bikel.
“He was 80,” Roth says. “There was a question of whether he was relevant. It was an institutional gamble in seeing a living legend past his prime.
The Disputation sold out.
“He was a force of nature,” is how Deborah Tannen describes Bikel. Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, became friends with Bikel 15 years ago and helped connect the performer with Theater J. During Bikel’s Washington run, Tannen and her husband often joined the actor and his wife for dinner. Meals were invariably after midnight, once the night’s performance had ended.
Tannen befriended Bikel when he was in his 80s. But she grew up knowing him as a folk singer. “He was singlehandedly responsible for bringing Jewish folk music to the United States,” she says. She describes the cover for his album Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs —“the one with the graffiti on the wall, where he’s standing there, leaning on his guitar case. Every family I knew had that album.”
But here she was in the Bikels’ Washington hotel room, watching him light Shabbat candles and singing the blessings in his familiar baritone.
Bikel returned to Washington and Theater J in 2008 to premiere his one-man show, Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, his attempt to separate Yiddish culture from the kitsch of Tevye and to honor his father, who bequeathed a love of the classic Yiddish writer.
“There was always a danger of being sentimentalized,” Tannen says. For Bikel, “Yiddish culture was a living thing. The Yiddish language was inseparable from the lives and experiences of the people.”
“There was drama in collaborating with Theo,” Roth writes on his Facebook page. “There was pay-off and there was a price.”
He elaborates: “Theo didn’t like tough love and he was too experienced to accept and criticism of his script.”
Despite working with Bikel the actor, Roth, too, first connected with Bikel the folk singer and activist, the man who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival.
“He was a teacher of music, a walking songbook,” Roth says. “The way he performed with his modest, classical six-string guitar. His intensity. He just owned the song. He got to its marrow. I liked it better than any of his acting.”
When Arena Theater staged Fiddler last November, Tannen appeared with Bikel, who was not in the production, for an after-performance q and a.
“He was quite debilitated,” she says. But as they spoke, and he discussed his work as Tevye, “you saw Tevye come to life from this 90-year-old man in an armchair. His entire body came alive.”