“The invitation came out of nowhere,” he says. “I hadn’t grown up in music theatre, but Fiddler on the Roof is the one musical I knew well. It’s timeless and universal and it’s a real theatre piece. I’ve seen the movie, seen several live productions. I have a cultural link to the story. My mum’s side of the family came from the shtetls – they were like these people. So in a way it’s very familiar.”
Being asked to play Motel was a timely offer for Lior, coinciding as it did with the beginning of his second decade as a professional entertainer. “I’ve just finished a ten year cycle,” he says. “And this came at the end. I’ve released five albums, and so I decided to challenge myself with a different art form and see how I go.”
Lior will appear onstage alongside Anthony Warlow, Sigrid Thornton and Mark Mitchell; impressive company for someone who isn’t a trained actor. However, despite his inexperience, singing someone else’s songs and taking direction hasn’t been too difficult.
“Roger Henderson is a brilliant director,” Lior says. “He lets you find your way. He’s not didactic. It’s challenging, I’m exploring new processes. Roger had faith in my potential. He could see the direction I needed to go in and let me discover and learn a lot; not deliver by rote. With my character he said, ‘Bring the Yiddish inflections into it. Do all the Jewish trills. Decorate it in a way that you see fit.’ I much prefer to find my own way. This is an actor-driven show, which is a big part of the reason I wanted to do it.”
He’s found a lot to like about the character of Motel. “He goes on a real journey,” Lior says. “He’s a gentle subservient character to begin with, and he becomes strong and centred. He’s torn between respect for tradition, but he opens the gates to bigger increments of change.”
Preparing for the role has also been a personally instructive experience for Lior. “I’ve learnt I can be less inhibited and a bit braver than I would have given myself credit for before,” he says. “I’ve been stepping outside my comfort zone, far from my own comfortable life as a singer/songwriter. You’re stepping into another art form where you’re not the man, not leading or directing. You have to become vulnerable and a little bit brave as well. It’s a great learning curve. You can’t do that without the risk of failure. Although it’s not a dance heavy piece, I did have one moment where I thought to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ I am so full of admiration for people who have to sing and dance at the same time and who do it well.”
The songs from Fiddler on the Roof are among the most famous show tunes ever written. It’s hard to imagine anyone anywhere who hasn’t heard If I Were a Rich Man. Lior sings one solo song, Miracle of Miracles, and says he loves the simplicity of the songs from Fiddler – an observation that could just as easily be made about his own music.
“I never thought about writing musicals, but now I could become a lyricist if I had the opportunity to write songs for a story as beautifully told as this one is,” he says. “They are really beautiful songs. The simplicity and beauty of them is so powerful. They’re inspiring. My lyric writing has a similar simplicity. I can see myself writing lyrics like that. These songs contain the real power of simple lyrics, they have a universal simple lyrical power.”
In contrast to a big Broadway style extravaganza, the musical arrangements in this production of Fiddler on the Roof are fairly simple and low-key. For a start, instead of an orchestra, a klezmer ensemble performs the music. “They are more contemporary arrangements. It’s really beautiful, that bitter sweetness of klezmer.”
Amazingly, Fiddler on the Roof is the most popular western musical in Japan, which shows how universal it is. “It’s one of the most popular musicals ever. This story exists in so many cultures, amongst so many different nationalities. It connects with other cultures. People in Japan have said, ‘It’s written about us’. They totally relate to this story. It speaks to Japan’s own history of change versus tradition and progress. It’s popular in Korea too. It’s popular far and wide; it has universal appeal.”
BY LIZA DEZFOULI