In high school, I was what my boyfriend now refers to as a “drama pet.” My school did two theatrical productions a year — a Shakespeare play and a musical — and for my five years of secondary education, I was in every single one. I worked my way up from the chorus line, climbing the Royal West Academy theatrical ladder until, in Grade 11, I landed a lead role (the fact that my singing voice remained unmarred by the ravages of puberty gave me a significant competitive edge).
The last musical production we did was “Fiddler on the Roof.” I had received a copy of Norman Jewison’s film version as a Bar Mitzvah present.
Upon watching it, as much as I did not want this to be the case, I immediately recognized a kinship with the character of Motl the Tailor. When I, a gawky kittenish lad of 17, was cast as Motl the Tailor, my fellow drama pets smirked, rolled their eyes, and declaimed (in that inimitable tone unique to veterans of amateur theatre): “Of course. Typecasting.”
For those not in the know, “Fiddler on the Roof” takes place in early 20th century Russia, and concerns the trials and tribulations of Tevye the Milkman; specifically, his quest to marry off his daughters.
Motl is the gawky, shy, kittenish tailor of the fictional town of Anatevka (in the Broadway and flim versions), who, against all odds, overcomes his stammering bashfulness, and through his unerring earnestness, proves his worth and gets the girl of his shtetl dreams, Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitl.
(A brief aside, for those interested in Canuck film trivia — in my high school production, the role of Tevye was played by a certain celebrated young rising actor/director of Canadian cinema whose recent film, by all accounts, is a roman à clef of life in our alma mater).
I gave a rousing performance (I apparently made my best friend’s mother cry during my Miracle of Miracles solo), despite the fact that, at the time, I was just beginning to come to grips with the fact that I would have been much more personally invested in the role were I declaiming my undying love to the Rabbi’s son, or one of the other yeshiva bochers.
I am not yet 32, but I have been looking forward to that particular birthday year for one reason, and one reason only.
I have been practicing that line day in and day out since I first saw this film, this toxically self-loathing paean to pre-Stonewall New York gay life.
For those not in the know, “Boys in the Band” was among the first movies to tackle what was then scandalously referred to as the “homosexual lifestyle” head on. Based on an off-Broadway play, it centres around a group of friends who congregate for a patio party thrown by Michael on the occasion of Hallie’s (née Harold) 32nd birthday. The evening wears on, the drunkenness gives way to messiness, the party games become more catty, and it inevitably ends in a sloppy wet orgy of self-doubt and self-recrimination.
(Just FYI: The impatient can feel free to begin the first clip at the 8:55 mark)
The only one to navigate these choppy black waters unscathed is Hallie, who, patience finally exhausted by Michael’s attempts to prove everyone as damaged and guilty as he is, delivers the crushing moral truth; he then heads for the door and leaves with the final, compassionate “call you tomorrow.”
I identify deeply with Hallie, my fellow gay Jew; how could I not? The lacerating wit; that particular, seemingly paradoxical combination of prickly, armored irony and self-doubting vulnerability (just now, re-watching that clip, I had a heart-pang at hearing him declare his need to “get up the nerve to show my face to the world”); we even have the same laugh.
The actor who portrays both Motl and Hallie is named Leonard Frey. When I found out that these roles were played by the same man, the same gay man, the same gay Jewish man, I was ecstatic. “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Boys in the Band” heretofore represented these vastly disparate parts of my life; and here was this man — another willowy, kittenish, dramatic gay Jew — who also navigated these very same roles, negotiating them seamlessly (he earned an Oscar nomination for “Fiddler on the Roof”), collapsing the two grand narratives of my coming-of-age into a year’s worth of work (“The Boys in the Band”: 1970; “Fiddler on the Roof”: 1971).
(A brief aside, in the interest of thematic completeness: in the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Frey played Mendel, the rabbi’s son).
Of course, Frey had a much more varied career than that — on Broadway, television and other movies. But this is immaterial to me. In that single year’s work, he laid a kind of cosmological groundwork for me, reflecting the two pillars of my identity.
Whereas I had placed those pillars on opposite sides of my self’s temple, Leonard embodied them both equally, hopping from one to the next as if they were neighbours. Leonard Frey, member of my tribe, my brother in arms: Call you tomorrow.
- Sholem Krishtalka