Judy Kuhn: From Fiddler to the West End, in 90 minutes flat

John Nathan meets the Broadway star winning critical acclaim for her performance as Golda in Fiddler on the Roof


If you happen to be booked in for a matinée performance of Fiddler on the Roof at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it might just be worth hanging around outside after Trevor Nunn’s production finishes. Because there is the distinct possibly of the rare sight of Tevye’s wife Golde jumping into a cab and haring across town from Southwark to the West End.

“From curtain down at the Menier, to curtain up at the Leicester Square Theatre, it’s about 90 minutes,” says Judy Kuhn when we meet. At the Menier, she —beautifully — plays Golde opposite Andy Nyman’s tough Tevye. But on Sunday February 3, the role of Golde is not all she plays. She’ll have about 15 minutes for a sound check before getting on stage for the latest Broadway @ Leicester Square Theatre show to play, well, herself.

In essence, that means the star of such Broadway musicals as She Loves Me, the original New York productions of Chess, Les Miserables, and most recently Fun Home for which she created the role of Helen Bechdel. She received Tony Award nominations for all of those performances, though Disney aficionados will know her as Pocohantas’s singing voice, which helped composer Alan Menken to one of his many Oscars.

At Leicester Square, she will be sharing the stage with musician, raconteur and all-round doyen of Broadway Seth Rudetsky. But she’s not sure what she’ll be singing as there is a lot of improvisation to these shows.“Seth and I plan out a certain amount. There are songs that I have to sing, like Pocahontas. People will be very disappointed if I don’t. And I usually have to sing something from Chess. Maybe some from one of my albums. But actually I don’t know. The ones that Seth doesn’t roll his eyes at are probably the ones we’ll do.”

In a recent interview with the JC, David Babani, Fiddler’s producer made no secret of his hope for a West End transfer. And, since then, Nunn’s production has been a critical hit. But, for the moment, Kuhn’s focus is very much on the Menier run which is due to finish on March 9. “I go home on the 10th. It’s a looong time to be away,” she says.

Still, if the transfer does happen, it will be in no small part because of her Golde. It is a performance brimful of nuance and avoids any hint of the hectoring Jewish matriarch of lesser performances.

“I don’t see her that way,” says Kuhn when we meet for a cup of tea and some cake near the Harold Pinter Theatre where she’s catching up with some of the Pinter at the Pinter season.

“I always think of Golde being earthbound while Tevye is in the sky, talking to God. He’s a dreamer. He likes to think of himself as an intellectual, whereas she is very much aware he is a poor milkman. And they have no sons, which means all the hard labour has to be done by her and their daughters. She’s the one that has to make sure the Sabbath candles are lit on time.”

Kuhn admits that her performance draws on her own family to some extent. The daughter of a musician on her mother’s side and a civil rights lawyer father who worked for the Kennedy administration, she was raised in an “artist activist” home.

“Golde in some ways reminds me of my grandmother,” she says. “I didn’t know her very well; she died when I as about ten. But I have memories of her being a very strong woman. She and my grandfather left Ukraine in 1920, a little after Tevye does. But they were not shtetl Jews. They were more educated and middle-class. When they left, they were getting it from both sides — the antisemitic side and the anti-bourgeois side. Nobody liked them.”

When Kuhn was a girl, her grandfather used to tell her about how the White Russians battered down the front door of his house while his father left by the back door. "What's a White Russian?" asked Kuhn. "A son of a bitch," said her grandfather.

She now lives in a New York with her screenplay writer husband David Schwab in a loft apartment. If the pictures in a recent New York Times interview are anything to go by, it is stunning. Pride of place is given to a Steinway baby grand which once belonged to her father’s great aunt and on which she had lessons when she was a girl. But her instrument of choice was to become her voice. Not so much powerful as potent, she remembers first receiving praise for it when she was a guitar-playing “junior hippy” singing Joni Mitchell songs. “I always got a good response.”

But if there was a trigger that sent her on her career path, it was the trips to the theatre. He parents took her often, but one evening in particular was pivotal

“My mother’s first cousin was a major producer and he took us back stage to Pippin. And seeing the sets leaning against the wall and the costumes hanging up I understood how magical they became on stage. Maybe that was the moment I thought ‘this is something I want to be involved in.’”

Though even she may never have imagined an evening in which she would have to transform from, as Kuhn herself puts it, “shtetl wench to West End chanteuse.”


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