Second Act–Bruce Sabath on Stage
At 35 it seemed like Bruce Sabath had it all. Harvard undergrad, Wharton MBA. A successful career at American Express. A big house in Bedford. A brilliant and beautiful wife, Karen, remarkably successful in her own Wall Street career. And two young boys, Michael and Jeremy. But, as Bruce says, “I just didn’t feel fulfilled.” He invariably credits Karen and the boys for giving him the encouragement and support to eschew all norms and quit work in favor of pursuing his passion to be an actor. Twenty-two years later, he is now an established theatrical performer. The Rochester, New York native has had a dozen Broadway and off-Broadway roles and numerous TV jobs, including appearances in this season’s “Madame Secretary,” and he’s currently playing Leyzer the butcher—and sometimes standing in as the lead, Tevye—in the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s all-Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof at Stage42 in NYC. And, he couldn’t be happier!
When Sabath heard that the legendary Joel Grey would be directing an all-Yiddish Fiddler he said to himself “I need to be in this.” He took German in high school, but had only a few weeks to learn the necessary Yiddish—and grow the beard. As Sabath puts it, “Doing the play in Yiddish gives the actors a special sense of responsibility to make sure that the acting and intentions are crystal clear, using an extra measure of gesticulation and physicality to convey meaning, almost the way you communicate if you are hard of hearing. And for the audience, I think the words land more directly because the text is right there in front of you, you are reading and hearing at the same time, and maybe you’re watching each character that much more critically to understand meaning. I’ve never before experienced such an across-the-board thumbs-up response from critics, the industry, and the general audience.”
Remarkably, then, as the Fiddler cast does what’s known as internal coverage to fill the roles of vacationing cast members, Sabath learned the much bigger load of Yiddish involved in playing Tevye, a role he had played—in English—back in high school and in a production about five years ago. “As I became immersed in the production, I developed a bigger vocabulary and learning the Yiddish came faster. I wouldn’t say I’m a fluent Yiddish speaker yet, but I can talk with all the bubbas and zeydes who greet me after each performance. Getting to play Tevye in a production of this quality, even only as a stand-in on a couple of dozen nights, has been a highlight of my acting career. I see Tevye as one of the greatest male lead roles in any musical. It’s the Lear of musical theater. Up there with Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music, and Emile de Beque in South Pacific.”
While playing in Fiddler has been a highlight, Sabath is far from finished. “I still feel like the new guy amongst my 50-something peers, most of whom have been focused on acting since they were kids. I feel fortunate to have landed all the roles I have so far and been involved in several headline-making, groundbreaking productions, like John Doyle’s transformation of the Sondheim classic Company which won the Best Revival Tony on Broadway. I’m just as passionate as the day I got started. ” Sabath reflects.
When pressed about what lies ahead, Sabath confides, “I feel accomplished, but it’s a continuing journey with much more to do, and I never think of it as a destination. I set out to do good acting work, working with excellent people, in great venues, bringing fantastic theater to bigger and bigger audiences, and I feel like I’m doing that. But my real dream is to find the new piece wherein I can originate a new lead role, like playing Jack Warner in Cagney where I was playing a part no one had done before. You know, someday folks are sitting around talking about the umpteenth revival of this yet unwritten classic, and someone remarks “I saw Bruce Sabath play the lead in that” like people do about Zero Mostel’s performance in Fiddler.”
For over two decades now, Sabath has walked the walk of an actor and is fully embracing the call to action from the Fiddler song: “To Life.”
FRESH FACE // On the much more practical side, Sabath admits, “My wife isn’t a huge fan of the scratchy beard, so I’ll probably have to shave it once the Fiddler run comes to an end.”