In September 2022, Jan Lisa Huttner, author of Diamond Fiddler: New Traditions for a New Millennium (Why Fiddler on the Roof Always Wins), spoke with Barbara Bayes, the wife of Sammy Dallas Bayes, who sadly passed in May.
Jan Lisa Huttner: How did you and Sammy meet?
Barbara Bayes: Sammy and I met in 1985. I was a performer, dancing and singing in an industrial show for IBM. Sammy was our choreographer. We met at the earliest possible moment that we could have met in our lives. I was 20 years old. Sammy was 45. So, it was quite scandalous. We dated for five years, and then, on September 22, 1990, we got married. The date is significant because Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway on September 22, 1964. We wanted to get married in the Fall, and it just so happened that the 22nd was on a Saturday that year. Sammy joked: “At least I’ll remember my wedding anniversary.” Sammy and I were married for 31 years, and we raised two beautiful daughters. Just like Tevye, Sammy was a “girl dad.”
JLH: Do you know the Yiddish word bashert? When all the pieces of a puzzle fit together, it’s “bashert,” meaning “meant to be.” Tell me a bit about your career.
BB: I divide my life with Sammy into three acts.
When I met Sammy, in Act One, I was doing summer stock, and getting myself going. In Act Two, after we decided to have children, I happily put that on the shelf. I did a bit of theater and commercial work, but just as it fit into our schedule. Sammy was traveling quite a bit in those days, and we made an agreement – if Sammy was going to be gone for more than five or six weeks, we would all go. London! Sydney! Tokyo! It was wonderful, being together – as a family – in these beautiful cities. Now, in Act Three, I’m going back into New York City to see what the market is like for a woman of my age. It turns out everybody needs a mom or a grandmother, so I have been booking quite a bit. I did a play Off-Broadway called Executive Decision in which I played the President of the United States. I really loved that!
JLH: In 2011, Bernard Carragher spoke with Sammy for the Jerome Robbins Foundation’s Oral History Project. Sammy talked very intimately and very beautifully about Robbins in that interview. He specifically described the quality of attention that Robbins had, especially in the context of the choreography manual they did together for Fiddler. It was clear to me – reading that interview – that Sammy felt he had had a profoundly important relationship with Robbins, and he wanted to emulate the qualities he attributed to Robbins in his own theatrical relationships.
BB: One of the last plays I did with Sammy was Into the Woods. Sammy was the director, and I was the witch. Working with Sammy was divine. He had such a way of telling stories and getting things out of his performers that we didn’t even know we had within us.
Somebody asked me recently: “Did Sammy prefer choreographing? Directing? Writing?” And I said: “You know, he started as a dancer, but I think what he really liked to do was tell stories.” He could see how a story should be told, and he told it with his actors and his staging. That was his gift, and, I think, to a great degree, that was due to his connection with Jerome Robbins.
I’ve never been in a production of Fiddler. I need to fulfil that dream one day. But while our daughters were in high school, Sammy and I co-directed the annual musicals at their high school. One year, I said: “You’ve got to do Fiddler.” Sammy was reluctant, but I said: “It would be a shame not to give them that experience.” So, we did, and it was incredible. Our older daughter – Alexa – played Yente, and our younger daughter – Taylor – played Hodel.
I will tell you this: stage crew, actors – be they female or male – it was a rite of passage to learn The Bottle Dance! The kids were just astounded that it wasn’t a gimmick – that they had to really balance the bottles on their hats! Sammy treated them the same as he would a professional cast. He didn’t cut any slack for anybody.
JLH: Such a breadth of experience across space (from New York to Tokyo) and time (from 1964 to your daughters’ high school). Was Sammy ever surprised that so many people embraced the characters in this story?
“Fiddler is a universal story. It’s a story of family and moving forward while trying to hold onto what you know from your past…. We want what’s best for our kids, right? We want them to be happy… but sometimes we want them to be happy on our own terms.”
BB: Oh no, that never surprised Sammy. Fiddler is a universal story. It’s a story of family and moving forward while trying to hold onto what you know from your past. It’s a beautifully told story, so even though it’s set in a Jewish shtetl in 1905, it resonates around the world. We want what’s best for our kids, right? We want them to be happy… but sometimes we want them to be happy on our own terms.
JLH: I called Sammy in 2009 when I was covering Topol’s “Farewell Tour” for Chicago’s JUF News. Such an illuminating conversation. I devote a whole section to that interview in my book Diamond Fiddler: New Traditions for a New Millennium. I also spoke with other members of the fabulous team Sammy had assembled. Everyone sang Sammy’s praises as director and choreographer.
Topol has spoken very movingly – to me and to others – about his emotional arc. When he played Tevye in London in the 1960s, he was a very young man, but by 2009, he was the father of two adult daughters (as well as one son). How did Sammy feel about Fiddler once he also became the father of daughters?
BB: Sammy adored his girls – it goes without saying – and when Alexa and Taylor came into our lives, it just changed his perspective completely. There’s something protective that happens. I think he even treated the actors differently once he became a father. He loved his actors. He loved working with them. Life had a deeper purpose.
JLH: The Fiddler is always played by a dancer (never an actor or a musician). According to IBDB (the Internet Broadway Database), Sammy didn’t play The Fiddler in the original cast. So, when did Sammy become The Fiddler?
BB: Sammy started off playing Yitzuk (the street sweeper). According to Sammy, one of Robbins’ gifts was to give everybody a name. Robbins didn’t want “Street Sweeper” in the credits. Everybody had a character – with a name – that they could develop. But by 1972, he was The Fiddler (after years as The Fiddler’s understudy as well as the Dance Captain). When the show returned to Broadway in 1976, Sammy played The Fiddler again.
Here’s the story Sammy told me: He was a young dancer in New York, and he had gotten several callbacks for Fiddler. He was literally down to like a dollar in his pocket. He said he had gone to the butcher and asked for scrap bones, and he had bought a carrot and an onion. He made soup and he ate that soup for a week. “I refused to take a temp job. I was just going to do what I wanted to do.” I’m sure his thought was: “If I take some sort of temporary job, it’s going to take me away from my goals.” So, he stayed with it…
“Talk about a sliding door moment.”
It was the last callback, and Sammy said it was down to him and another guy, and Tommy Abbott (Robbins’ assistant) said: “Take Sammy.” They went back and forth, and then Jerry said: “Oh, just take them both.” Talk about a sliding door moment. That moment connected him to this musical theater masterpiece and connected him to Jerome Robbins. And that association was lifelong. He had such profound respect for Robbins’ work. So, that’s the story Sammy told me about how he got cast in Fiddler.
In 1989, when Robbins put together his final Broadway show – Jerome Robbins’ Broadway – they contacted Sammy about assisting Robbins in recreating the Fiddler section of the show. Of course, Sammy was so happy to be a part of it.
I remember he came home after rehearsal one day and he just looked different, like almost in a dazed state. “I had such a great day… At the end of rehearsal, everybody’s leaving, and Jerry pulls me over, and he says to me: ‘That was really good work today.’ And I said to him: ‘Oh, thank you.’ Jerry said: ‘No, no, Sammy. That was really good work today.’”
“The Master said I did good work.” Sammy often referred to Robbins as “The Master.” And then, later in the rehearsal process, Robbins gave Sammy a T-shirt that said “Head Coach, Fiddler” along with a referee whistle. That just meant the world to Sammy.
When we went to the opening night of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Robbins was at a table at the after party, and so many people were coming over to congratulate him. Sammy and I made our way up to the table, and when he saw Sammy, Robbins’ face literally lit up: “Oh Sammy, Sammy.” And Robbins grabbed his hands, and Sammy said: “Oh Jerry, it was so good!” And Robbins said: “Really, was it good? Was it good?” I’m thinking: “You’re asking if it was good? It was incredible! It was beyond!” But it was so kind that Robbins just wanted to know if Sammy thought Jerome Robbins’ Broadway was good. “Really, was it good? Was it good?” It’s crazy, right?
JLH: Did you think it was good?
BB: It was great! It won six Tony Awards including Best Musical!
And then, shortly after that, was the 25th Anniversary Broadway Revival of Fiddler. Sammy choreographed that. I happened to swing by the theater when they were rehearsing the Inn Scene. I’m sitting there in the house at the Gershwin Theatre, and Sammy is working with these young dancers. It’s the pileup scene at the end of “To Life.” They’re doing it and doing it, and Sammy says: “No, no, no, no, no. Do it again. Do it again. No, that’s not it.”
Sammy gets up on the stage and says: “Stand back.” He cues the music, and the dancers start falling pile-by-pile. Sammy was the last one to go into a handstand. He hopped up on the bar, and then the last guy is on the floor. Boom!
Everybody un-piles. Sammy stands up, and he says: “That’s how you do it.” Then the guys surround Sammy: “Oh, my God, Sammy, that was amazing. I got it now. I got it.” And Sammy walks over to me, and he whispers: “Don’t ever let me do that again!”
JLH: Okay, this is a great place to introduce a topic from the 2011 Carragher interview. Bernie and Sammy discussed one of the great dilemmas in dance – how to ensure correct choreography. Bernie asked: “Who maintained the Fiddler choreography?” Sammy discussed how he came up with the concept of the Fiddler director’s book that goes out with the script when the show is licensed. Sammy also mentioned that he wanted to pass his Fiddler knowledge on to younger generations, so that Robbins’ original choreography always remains intact. My question to you is this: Was Sammy able to achieve that continuity before he passed?
“It was important to Sammy to pass it on.”
BB: It was important to Sammy to pass it on. It’s a piece of art and history that you don’t want to be lost. Sammy started working with a trained ballet dancer who has taken the mantle now. His name is Staś Kmieć.
JLH: Oh, gosh! Staś Kmieć is the person who did the choreography for the Yiddish Fiddler.
BB: Correct. Staś was on tour with Sammy (probably on more than one tour). When planning began for the Yiddish Fiddler, they emailed Sammy about it, but, unfortunately, his health prevented him. So, we emailed back and said: “Staś Kmieć is the guy you want to talk to.” Sammy had really taken great care to pass that information on to Staś, so, yes, the original Robbins choreography lives on.
JLH: I’ve seen the Yiddish Fiddler four times. It’s wonderful! When Fiddler premiered on Broadway in 1964, the Holocaust was only just emerging in popular culture as a distinct phenomenon in world history. I know that’s hard to believe now, but most people in the United States – including many Jewish Americans – knew very little about the Holocaust before 1961 (when the Eichmann Trial began). Fiddler’s creative team knew that survivors and children of survivors would be in the audience, so they would be dancing – so to speak – around extremely tender feelings.
Jerome Robbins (who had been to the “old country” as a child) was aware of this. In 1964, the subject of intermarriage was especially problematic; it’s still fraught even now. When I spoke with Sammy in 2009, I asked him pointed questions about Fyedka (the Russian youth who falls in love with Tevye’s daughter Chava). I told him the Fyedka in Topol’s “Farewell Tour” was a different character – in subtle, sympathetic ways – than any Fyedka I had ever seen on stage before. During our phone conversation, Sammy affirmed my POV: “Yes, Fyedka was always intended to be a good guy.” Some things that had to be covert in 1964 could be more overt in 2009. For Sammy, working in the 21st century, the time had come.
BB: Sammy never talked about Chava and Fyedka’s interfaith marriage with me, but he did say – as you write – that he brought Fyedka to the forefront. After the scene at the Inn, Tevye knows who Fyedka is.
JLH: Yes, he does. Sammy made that very clear in his staging. There were things Robbins couldn’t do in 1964, but I sincerely believe that Sammy knew what was in his heart.
BB: One of the things that Sammy told me, over the years in working with Jerry, Jerry told him, “Don’t be afraid to edit.” Fyedka’s story got pared back for whatever reason in 1964, but when Sammy put Fyedka in the spotlight at the Inn, it was so brilliant.
JLH: Yes. It was Sammy who showed me how Fyedka could be presented in a very sympathetic way.
BB: Sammy was extraordinary in so many ways. He loved his work so much, and because he was present at the creation of Fiddler, it was really such a blessing for him. It gave him so many insights and it helped him to understand. You tell me you keep learning new things about Fiddler. Well, Sammy always kept learning things about Fiddler on the Roof too.
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read several articles about the various 2014 events celebrating Fiddler on the Roof’s 50th Anniversary (including Bernard Carragher’s 2011 interview with Sheldon Harnick) in News from the Jerome Robbins Foundation.
Read Bernard Carragher’s 2011 interview with Sammy Dallas Bayes in News from the Jerome Robbins Foundation.
Read Bernard Carragher’s 2009 interview with Joseph Stein in News from the Jerome Robbins Foundation.
Read Edward Brill’s 2019 interview with Max Lewkowicz in News from the Jerome Robbins Foundation.
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s 2019 review of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, posted just after the move to Stage 42 (& before the COVID lockdown).
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo (from left): Sammy Dallas Bayes with his daughter Taylor, his wife Barbara (“Babs”), and his daughter Alexa at Raising the Roof — the 50th anniversary celebration of Fiddler on the Roof — at Town Hall in New York City. 2014. Photo courtesy of Barbara Bayes.
(1) Staging and choreography “Bibles” on the desk of choreographer Stas Kimiec during rehearsal for the 22022 revival of Fidler Afn Dakh (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish) at Manhattan’s New World Stages. Photo courtesy of Stas Kimiec.
(2) Sammy Dallas Bayes as The Fiddler in the 1976 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo courtesy of Barbara Bayes.
(3) Jason Alexander, Jerome Robbins, and Sammy Dallas Bayes rehearsing “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Photo given to Mr. Bayes by Mr. Robbins on opening night [February 26, 1989]. Photo courtesy of Barbara Bayes.
(4) Photo of Jan Lisa Huttner covering Topol’s “Farewell Tour” for Chicago’s JUF News at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach (FL) in 2009. In this production, Fyedka was played by Eric Van Tielen. Photo Credit: Frances Gragg.