‘While I’m Here’: A Look Back at Theodore Bikel
By Ellen Wexler
In an interview five months before his death at 91, Theodore Bikel reflected on his work: “I hope to inspire quite a lot of people,” he said, “because I have not only one but a number of legacies that need to be preserved.”
It was true: Bikel was an actor, a folksinger, a Yiddish speaker, an activist. On Broadway, he wasn’t the first Tevye the milkman, but he played the iconic role in Fiddler on the Roof over 2,000 times—more than any other actor. He was the first Captain von Trapp, and legend has it that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, knowing Bikel was also a talented folksinger, wrote the song “Edelweiss” especially for him.
Now, a group of musicians is making its own attempt at preserving Bikel’s legacy. A two-CD celebration of Bikel’s life, called While I’m Here, comes out Friday. One CD is a 17-song retrospective of Bikel’s work, while the other is a series of spoken-word reflections and stories.
By the end of his life, Bikel had a lot of stories—too many stories. For the CD, the hours of audio recorded needed to be cut considerably. The producers cut Bikel’s stories about Mary Martin, The Sound of Music’s original Maria; they cut his stories about serving on the board of the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and watching Bob Dylan go electric. What made the final CD were Bikel’s stories about Bikel: his introduction to acting, his love of Yiddish, his activism, his relationship with Judaism.
Moment spoke with one of the producers, folksinger Cathy Fink, about the project.
Where does the title, While I’m Here, come from?
The final song of the music CD is actually “When I’m Gone.” The lyrics are so poignant—they were poignant lyrics in the 60s when Phil Ochs wrote them—and it’s about urging people to do something on this earth. It’s about being an activist. Basically he’s saying: “You’ve got to do things while you’re here; when you’re gone it’s too late.”
In Theo’s last few years, he was using this song to close a lot of his shows. It really summed up how he’d been feeling and the things that he worked for. At his 90th birthday concert, he did an amazing rendition of this song. It sort of came together as Theo the folksinger, Theo the activist, Theo the actor. And in all of those things, he had tried to use his talents to make the world a better place for other people. And that song just so totally resonated.
You know, Theo’s life crossed so many interesting paths because of all of the different things that he did, one of them being a founder and original director of the Newport Folk Festival. He came across all of the 60s folkies from Phil Ochs to Pete Seeger to Tom Paxton to Judy Collins to Peter, Paul and Mary—all of these people who were really moved to use music to bring us together and charge our batteries, to try to do good social justice work together.
As a performer, Bikel was so much—he was everything from a Broadway actor to a folksinger. How does the CD reflect this? How did you decide what to include?
This whole project could have been 20 CDs and we wouldn’t cover everything Theo did. As a producer, at some point you have to make some choices. There were about five different recording sessions of Theo telling his own stories, and we listened to all of it. We paired down what we thought were the most important parts and then Marcy Marxer spent probably 30 hours editing it into this version that you hear on the CD.
We stuck to, for the most part, Theo’s stories about Theo. In those interviews, he talked a lot about stories about other people. He talked about Mary Martin in The Sound of Music. He talked about Bob Dylan playing electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, and what Pete Seeger’s reaction was. We decided that, since we had a limited amount of time on the spoken word CD, we were going to keep it all to Theo’s stories. I love how it starts with where the name Bikel came from and it closes with the story behind the song that really became one of his theme songs in his last few years.
We were also very fortunate to have been given some recordings that have never been released. There are a couple of songs from a concert at a synagogue in California from 1965 that nobody had and nobody knew about. There are a few other things that were recorded more recently that haven’t been released before, including this version of “When I’m Gone.” And the rest of it was an attempt to give a taste of everything that he did—even though it feels like mission impossible—but you do your best.
The CD includes tracks in Yiddish, Hebrew, English and French, as well as Bikel’s spoken-word thoughts about the Yiddish language. What did Yiddish mean to Bikel?
For Theo, Yiddish was a living and musical and theatrical language. He felt very connected to Yiddish. He read all of the Sholem Aleichem books in the original Yiddish language; he translated a lot of them. For so many people of my generation—I’m 63—Yiddish had to be rediscovered and relearned. I’m from a generation of people whose parents didn’t speak Yiddish, or whose parents and grandparents didn’t speak Yiddish in front of the kids. But for Theo, it was a great expressive working language. He wasn’t singing the songs phonetically; he was singing the songs as a Yiddish speaker.
How would you describe Bikel’s relationship with Judaism?
I think Judaism defined him in a lot of ways: as someone who was persecuted for being Jewish, someone who had to move on account of being Jewish, someone who went to help live the dream of helping create the Jewish state. The centerpiece of his life was Judaism, and so many pieces of theater that he did were centered around that as well.
People come back to home base at the end—and that was clearly home base for him. He never left Judaism, but it was constantly a strong part of what he did. He met Michael Stein because Michael was the cantor at Temple Aliyah, where Theo went to synagogue. They would spend Sabbath afternoons singing with whoever wanted to stick around and celebrate the Sabbath through song. Theo was there not as an actor, not as a performer, but as a congregant who wanted to commune with other people singing this incredible repertoire.
Bikel lived in Israel for a number of years. How did that time inform his legacy?
It’s a really a nice part of the spoken word CD where he talks about going to Palestine with his family. He talks about the fact that they had to leave a lot of things behind, and eventually got his grandmother to join him. And he began acting while he was in Israel. I love the story about him going to a kibbutz with the notion of being part of this movement—of the collective work ethic of kibbutzim—but he had both no interest and no talent in agriculture. Eventually, he became the cultural person on the kibbutz. And that’s where he first got into acting school and started that whole career.
Bikel played Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof in over 2,000 performances. How did he shape the role?
Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway was initiated by Zero Mostel. Theo took it over from Zero Mostel, but then he also toured it all over the world. There’s no question that Theo performed that role more times than any other actor. I think it was, for him, such a deep experience because he was so familiar with all of the writings of Sholem Aleichem. And obviously there were also pieces of this that were familiar to him from his own childhood, from his upbringing in Vienna.
How did his background in folk shape his career?
Theo, as a folk musician singing in 22 languages—that’s not done by very many people anymore, if anyone. And to have spoken six or seven of them fluently, and to be familiar enough with the others to actually sing in those languages, that’s remarkable. It’s remarkable artistry, but it’s also a remarkable understanding of the value of different languages and different cultures. The idea that you would preserve old songs in a lot of different languages, and that you would tell the stories behind these songs before performing them, and that the original languages meant something—I think Theo was in a very unique place to be able to give that to us. This was very rare.
Is it true that Rodgers and Hammerstein, knowing Bikel’s background in folk music, wrote the song “Edelweiss” for him?
There was a point in The Sound of Music—Theo initiated that role of Captain von Trapp—where they just realized, “Oh, we need another song.” So Rogers and Hammerstein went in the other room, whipped out this song and gave it to Theo. The funny thing is how many people thought it was a traditional folk song because he could put it across as if it were. There would be these elderly people who would come to the show and go, “Oh, yes, I remember this song from my childhood”—when it couldn’t have been in their childhoods. But it’s a testament to the strength of that music: these incredible songwriters who gave that song to an incredible singer who almost fooled us into believing that this was a traditional song.
For you, what was the experience of making the CD like? Did you learn anything new about Bikel?
Oh, so many things. The more you get to know someone, the better it is. And over the course of the almost two years on which we worked on this project, I was able to be on stage with Theo, to see how he created magic with an audience, to hang out in his living room and hear him regale people with his tales of all kinds of things.
Theo Bikel had one of the fullest lives of anyone that I’ve ever met. After reading his autobiography, I became even more charged up about doing this project where Theo told his stories in his own words. Of course, in his autobiography he’s telling them in his own words—but there’s something about the voice. To hear him tell his stories kind of off the cuff, that’s a pretty amazing thing.
My dream is that people will listen to this the way we used to listen to albums—which is, with nothing else going on. This isn’t background music and these aren’t background stories. I certainly hope people of younger generations will sit down and play this and listen with multiple generations: their parents, their grandparents. It’s going to bring back so many memories. They’re going to tell their own stories and how they relate to Theo’s stories. Their stories will be different, but I think by honoring the story of a man who died at 92 and accomplished everything he did, it reminds us to go to our own families and fill in the blanks of the stories that we don’t know enough about. Particularly in the Jewish tradition, as people become more and more secular, there are still threads of their past that we want to hang on to. And when those people are gone—just like the song “When I’m Gone”—we can’t get those stories anymore. So go get them while we’re here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.