Fiddler on the Roof is a series of stories based on Jewish life in a village that was made into a musical play in 1964. The North American premiere of a new production of this classic musical will debut Sept. 17 and run through Oct. 7 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
After a successful 2017 production in Komische Oper Berlin, Barrie Kosky directs this version, with non-binary performer Tommy Novak in the role of Avram.
Novak's pronouns are them/they/their and they are from Chicago's North Side. They attended Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Long Grove, Illinois and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Novak earned a 2016 Jeff Nomination for Night Blue's The Producers and their production of Romeo and Juliet won the 2019 Broadway World Regional Award for Best Professional Production.
This trained and talented entertainer talked about their journey to Fiddler and some exciting new projects in the works exclusively to Windy City readers.
Windy City Times: Have you always wanted to be a performer?
Tommy Novak: Oh, yeah, I started off as a choir kid in elementary school. My aunt and mother took me to musicals all the time. Disney movies are the best. I grew up singing and dancing.
WCT: What led you to the Lyric?
TN: My agent had sent me for several auditions there such as 42nd Street and was called in for Fiddler after sending in an audition tape. I was called in for Tevye, Lazar Wolf and Mordcha. The assistant director asked me to read for Avram, a bookseller. This is a character that supports others in the plot but does not have a lot of identifying features.
This was my first in-person audition since the pandemic. It was a moment to finally be in front of humans and I felt great about it. I got the call and got it.
WCT: You must be excited to be on that iconic stage.
TN: I have seen many musicals there and they are just unworldly. Fiddler on the Roof is like an opera with a musical tradition. All of the principles are from the musical-theater world.
There will be around 100 people on the stage with dancers, a chorus and actors. I am used to playing a part like Avram and then switching costumes to play a bunch of different characters. With this production, there are people to play different roles. It is fascinating to watch.
This is my first show back since the pandemic on a stage, so I know I will be emotional.
WCT: You worked on Mercury Theater's Priscilla Queen of the Desert?
TN: Yes, I [was an assistant director in] it, as well as in La Cage aux Folles. It was a true collaboration. It turned out better than any production of Priscilla could. The script is a device to get to the next pop song, but we tried to make it about navigating life as a queer individual. Sometimes there is a celebration and then sometimes homophobia. The show punches in a different way.
WCT: Does being non-binary open you up to playing all genders?
TN: Yes and no. I have been playing old dudes since I was in middle school. I was in the adult chorus of Bye Bye Birdie in high school! [laughs]
There aren't many roles written from a non-binary perspective. There are more coming in mainstream television as opposed to the theater. People don't know what to do with us.
WCT: What would you like to see a change in the industry as far as non-binary casting?
TN: I think companies are striving for diversity but they don't understand gender diversity as well as body type diversity. How does a show look at is diverse? There need to be all sorts of narratives.
There needs to be more stories and not doing a Brigadoon with identities shoved into it that didn't exist.
WCT: What did you think of the casting and interpretation of the musical Oklahoma?
TN: I loved it. I saw it three times when it was here. I wanted to see it because they didn't change the lines or cut anything. They just shifted the perspective and overall intentions of the original. It was something I had never seen before.
WCT: What are you working on next?
TN: After Fiddler, I am assistant directing Clue at the Mercury, then I am going to Milwaukee to perform in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical. I will be playing Sam the Snowman after understudying the role previously.
WCT: Can you make the role your own after the classic Rankin/Bass version?
TN: Well, you have to honor that, but there are some moments where I can make the Burl Ives character my own. I am working on the script now because there are a lot of lines!
I teach at Carthage College where I got my master's degree and we will be working on Hair as a director amidst Clue.
WCT: You teach also?
TN: Yes and I have even taught musical theater in China. I have been working with The Voice Lab Chicago to help trans and non-binary artists with their transition. It is masculinization and feminization of the vocal cords. Female-to-male transitions sometimes just rely on testosterone, but male-to-female transitions need to have ear training and memorization. I help people find their voice to fit their identity.
WCT: How rewarding!
TN: It is important and when someone has euphoria after learning how to sing there is nothing like it. Once I got my degree I noticed a lot of trans and non-binary students would seek me out on campus. I would help them navigate costumes and characters.
WCT: Your real name is Tommy Novak?
TN: YesThomas Novak, but I go by Tommy. My grandmother always called me Tommy Tune. She is very excited about coming to see me in Fiddler on the Roof!
***You don't have to be a rich man to afford tickets. Just click over to www.LyricOpera.org for seats that will suit your budget. (Note: The production is three hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Also, Fiddler on the Roof will not have an at-home streaming option.)
For more on Novak's teaching and projects, visit www.TommyNovakActor.com .