Mary Illes

Mary Illes, center, and members of the original cast 

Dayton-born Mary Illes, a singular talent with a range of Broadway (“She Loves Me”) and national tour (“The Secret Garden”) experience, comes via Zoom to Orange Village’s Temple Emanu El for one evening of questions and answers, which is open to the public.

Her resume also includes originating the role of Golde in “Fidler afn Dakh,” the widely-acclaimed Yiddish version of the enduring musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” The musical is based on stories written by Sholem Aleichem that are set in a Jewish shtetl in Imperial Russia. The Yiddish translation of the musical by Shraga Friedman, on which this production is based, dates back to the mid-1960s and was first performed in Israel.

This production of “Fidler afn Dakh,” which was mounted by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in 2018, opened at lower Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage for a six-week run, which was extended multiple times before transferring to off-Broadway by popular demand.

The CJN caught up by telephone with the actress in her New York City apartment to discuss her experience in “Fidler afn Dakh” ahead of her May 12 virtual event with Temple Emanu El’s Brotherhood.

CJN: What were your experience with “Fiddler on the Roof” prior to this production?

Illes: I had never performed in the show before “Fidler Afn Dakh.”

CJN: Tell us about your audition for the role Golde.

Illes: We were given selections from the script and sound files of songs to learn for the initial audition, all in Yiddish, and the women were told to dress simply and in the period of the show. I felt that I did well, but I didn’t hear anything afterwards so I accepted a job with the first national tour of “Anastasia.” My agent called to say that “Fidler” had lost its Golde because she got cast in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Rehearsals started three days later, on June 4, and my last performance was on July 19, when I started rehearsals for the “Anastasia” tour.

CJN: How challenging was the Yiddish?

Illes: I speak German and lived in Vienna for three years, so I could understand about 85% of what I was saying in Yiddish. But every night, we all had to rehearse our lines backstage just before our entrances.

CJN: Harold Prince, the original producer of “Fiddler” on Broadway, was quoted as saying, “If you have seen ‘Fiddler’ before, you must see this production because it will make you feel you are seeing ‘Fiddler’ for the first time.” Besides the Yiddish, what do you suppose made “Fidler afn Dakh” so unique?

Illes: Its intimacy, its sparse set, its realism. And we were all working actors, not stars.

CJN: Did director Cleveland native Joel Grey talk about the history of the show on Broadway and did past productions and performances inform this one?

Illes: We were encouraged to find this version of this show and make it true.

CJN: What’s your take on Golde and what did you bring to the role?

Illes: I remember thinking about my grandmas who both grew up in small villages in Hungary, and how connected to the earth they had to be, how vital and fundamental everything they did was. Golde is like that. I wanted her to be of the earth, honest and no nonsense. Also, she knows Tevye well and doesn’t let him get away with anything!

CJN: Backers of the original Broadway musical worried that it would be “too Jewish” for tourists and the work was revised before opening. Do you think that the Yiddish in “Fidler afn Dakh” serves to make the musical more Jewish?

Illes: We were told that Yiddish is the language that united Jewish immigrants in the last century, so that no matter where you grew up, you shared this incredible language. It still does.

CJN: Prior to COVID-19, there were talks of a China tour, an Australian tour and a national tour. Is that something you would be interesting in doing?

Illes: I’d love to do the show again.

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