Dudu Fisher: singer, actor, cantor

David 'Dudu' Fisher singing at a concert on June 16. (Peter Halmagyi)

David ‘Dudu’ Fisher singing at a concert on June 16. (Peter Halmagyi)

NEW YORK, Oct. 14 (JTA) — “I was Moses for almost two years.” David “Dudu” Fisher, wearing black T-shirt, jeans and a knitted kipah during a recent interview in midtown Manhattan, is not having delusions of grandeur. Indeed, what the actor and singer says is true. Sort of. After his star turn in the mega-hit musical “Les Miserables” — he played the lead role on Broadway and in Tel Aviv, London and Florida — Fisher, 52, was cast to play the Jewish prophet in the new U.S. version of a successful French musical,”The Ten Commandments.” “I always thought, ‘He is Moses,’ ” says Richard Jay-Alexander, who directed Fisher in “Les Miz” and was slated to direct “Commandments.” “He was at the forefront of my list.” But after a dispute involving the French show’s composer, the original music was pulled and another musician hired to write new songs. Jay-Alexander bolted — and a new director dumped Fisher in favor of film star Val Kilmer. “OK. It’s not so bad to lose it to Val Kilmer, because he is a big star,” says Fisher, who is launching a North American tour this month. “But I’m still shocked.” But not too shocked. This was, after all, not the first such disappointment for the Orthodox Israeli cantor-turned-Broadway-star. Indeed, since his success in “Les Miz” — another French show that hit it big on this side of the Atlantic — Fisher, whose curly sponge of hair seems to defy gravity, has found himself locked out of many of Broadway’s prime roles. These setbacks, though, have had as much to do with the decisions of Broadway bigs as Fisher’s own accounting with the Big Man Upstairs. “I understand that to be shomer Shabbat and to try to accomplish something in show business is almost impossible,” Fisher says. “Every show that I wanted to do — from ‘Phantom of the Opera’ to ‘Fiddler’ to ‘Oliver’— every one told me the same thing: ‘We cannot bring in another guy to do the show on Friday night and Saturday matinee because we have to pay the salary of a star to the guy who does it. And what is he going to do the whole week? He’s going to sit at home and just come for shabbos?” Which is exactly what Fisher’s understudy did when Fisher played Jean Valjean on Broadway. Instead of performing in the usual eight shows each week, Fisher did just six, resting during Shabbat. “I don’t believe even Topol took Friday night and Saturday matinee off for ‘Fiddler,’ ” Jay-Alexander says, referring to the legendary Israeli actor Chaim Topol, famous for his portrayal of Tevye the dairyman in “Fiddler on the Roof.” “We got it for Dudu. People loved him.” And the show made other accommodations for its cantor in residence. After receiving a concerned letter from a rabbi, Jay-Alexander had a cross that Fisher’s character was to kneel in front of removed from the set during “Dudu shows.” On Oct. 19, Fisher — a tenor whose voice is at once sweet and muscular — is scheduled to launch a North American tour with his new one-man show, “Coming to America,” in which he’ll perform favorite songs from Jewish musicals including “The Jazz Singer,” “Yentl” and “Fiddler.” He’ll also be showcasing some cantorial music melded with musical comedy tunes, as he has done in previous shows. Bruce Gelb, producer and promoter for Fisher´s new show — which will make stops in Boston, Englewood, N.J., Baltimore, Toronto, Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland and Westbury, N.Y.— says that Fisher has a rare combination of talents that could just land him back on the Great White Way. “When I saw and heard him live I was very impressed with his voice,” says Gelb, also the North American promoter for blind tenor Andrea Bocelli. “And he has that ability to move people emotionally. It’s more than just a concert; it’s an emotional experience.” After graduating from an Israeli music school in 1973, the then-22-year-old Fisher signed on as cantor at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv. The following year he moved to a shul in Netanya and, later spent three years as a chazzan in Johannesburg. When he returned to Israel, Fisher took the bimah at a Ramat Gan shul, and over the course of the next several years led High Holiday and Passover services in Brazil and at Kutcher’s resort in the Catskill mountains — where he still officiates on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to “recharge my batteries.” It was only through a chance encounter with “Les Miz” on a 1986 trip to London that Fisher first considered a shift to musical theater. Although he acknowledges that his Sabbath-observant lifestyle has repeatedly closed doors for him professionally, Fisher is convinced it remains a spiritual necessity. “For me to be in a theater on a Friday night is not Shabbosdik,” or in the Sabbath spirit, Fisher says. “You should be with your family. Because we don’t spend enough time with our kids and our families. Once a week, have a big meal with your friends, with your family.” In fact, Fisher says, the thought of breaking Shabbat to take advantage of performance opportunities has never even occurred to him. Well — never is a strong word. “Once it crossed my mind,” he admits, laughing. About seven years ago, Fisher says, Cameron Mackintosh, a top theatrical producer who was instrumental in allowing Fisher to miss Shabbat performances of “Les Miserables,” invited him to take part in a special “Les Miz” anniversary performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “So he called me up and he said to me, “Look, I know the problems you have on Friday night and Saturday matinee, the sun going down, the stars going up,’ ” Fisher recalls Mackintosh saying. “‘So we’re not doing it on a Friday night or Saturday. We’re going to do it on a Sunday, just because I want you to be there.” “I was crying,” Fisher continues. “To hear this from the biggest producer, it’s like, crazy.” So Fisher asked Mackintosh for the date of the show. It was to take place, the producer told him, on Oct. 15 — which Fisher soon realized was Sukkot eve. “Now I’m really mad,” Fisher says. “I was furious. I thought, maybe I could go there and I sing into” someone else’s microphone, a reference to the Jewish law forbidding the use of electronics on Shabbat and holidays. In the end, Fisher declined the offer and spent that night in his sukkah with his family. “I said to myself, ‘Well, that’s it. Now I’m screwed up for life. If I didn’t give up Sukkos to be there for this kind of publicity — the kind you cannot buy for money — then I’ll never do it.’ ” But if, as Fisher hopes, “people come out of the theaters screaming,” then he will be able to transfer his latest show to Broadway — and keep the theater dark Friday nights and Saturdays. “I’ll bring everybody — I’ll bring the mayor and all the Broadway people — to show how we close the theater, with a big key, on Shabbos. We’ll make a big thing out of it,” Fisher muses. “I really believe that God, when he closes one door to me, he opens another one.”

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