Judy Kuhn interview: 'Everyone wants you to do film and TV, but I'm a theatre animal'
Judy Kuhn, a Broadway veteran with a track record of major credits stretching back over 30 years, is no stranger to London, working with Trevor Nunn or Fiddler on the Roof.
Now all three are combining in the show that has brought her back to London and reunited her with Nunn: she is reprising the role of Golde, wife of milkman-turned-everyday-philosopher Tevye, that she's previously played in the last Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof in 2016.
But this time she is doing it in Nunn's brand-new intimate version of the show, now transferred to the West End's Playhouse from the Menier Chocolate Factory, for whom she previously starred as Cosette in the original Broadway transfer of Les Miserables in 1987 and as Florence Vassy in Chess a year later, both of which earned her Tony nominations (amongst the five she's so far received, the most recent of which was for the original production of Fun Home in 2015). She also appeared in the LA try-out of the transfer of Nunn's production of Sunset Boulevard - but never got to Broadway with it, as she fell pregnant with her daughter Anna, now 24, and was replaced by Alice Ripley. "Thank you for my career Anna," she reports Ripley telling her daughter.
It's the sort of generosity of spirit that Kuhn herself exemplifies. Even talking of Broadway flops she's done, she says, "Maybe Chess and Rags closed fast - and Rags closed very fast! - but I wouldn't say they were failures. It depends on how you define the word. They have been commercial failures but they were not artistic failures - people still do them, and love the music."
Two years after Chess, she was brought to London to make her West End debut in another commercial flop Metropolis, for which she was nonetheless Olivier nominated. "The process was a struggle," she says diplomatically, of a production that was written by the late (and disgraced) Joseph Brooks and directed by Jerome Savary.
"But I loved my time in London - I had a beautiful flat in South Kensington, and it was one of the most beautiful springs I think Londoners have ever experienced, it was sunny and warm every single day. My fellow cast mates, who had very pale English skin, were not used to the sun, and would come in beet red, and we were doing a show about people living underground who'd never seen the sun! Stage management had to put signs out on the board saying, 'stay out of the sun'!"
They might require similar signs at the Playhouse should London suddenly have another sunny spell, as Fiddler also inhabits a wintry Russian milieu. But she's been personally delighted to inhabit it once again, after stepping into the Broadway production as a replacement three years ago.
"I'd never done that before and it was very brief, I didn't have a proper rehearsal and didn't get to create that performance. While I was free to make it my own, you don't really have the time and a lot of things are already in place, so it is thrilling to go back and try to invent it myself. I had to get rid of the ghost of that performance, while saving what was good and worked. But Andy [Nyman, who plays Tevye] and I had time to develop our own relationship, too."
She speaks particularly fondly of working with Trevor Nunn again: "He's been so important to me, not just to my career but also to my education as an actor - I was young and at the beginning of my career when we first worked together, and I learnt so much from him."
And nothing has changed more than 30 years later: "He really accomplished what he set out to do, which is to make it feel real. As he told me when he made the pitch for me to come over, he wanted to banish all the Broadway-sized, glitz and schmaltz, and bring it back to a human scale and make Anatevka feel real, so the audience is really there with us."
When the production opened at the Menier, that was more readily achievable in the intimacy of that small theatre; but a lot of that intimacy has been maintained in its move to the Playhouse, and even possibly enhanced, says Kuhn: "Being slightly more proscenium now, it pulls the characters and the show into focus more."
What is also gloriously maintained is the sense of the community under threat that it revolves around: "What's extraordinary about this show is that is about a very specific community at a very specific time, but it really speaks to all communities through all time. That's one reason why fifty-plus years on it is one of the most revived shows ever."
Kuhn can remember the very first time she saw it: "I was ten or eleven and my family were living in New York for a year for my father's work - and the first time I went to a Broadway show was to see the original production, though not the original cast. I was absolutely transported by it. It's a masterpiece and sadly, it feels more relevant than ever."
She's referring to the fate of immigrants - the people that America was built on - in Trump's America, and she notes, "I daresay that the forces that gave us Trump are the same ones that gave you Brexit."
Sometimes, though, theatre can actually make a tangible difference. She found this particularly when she starred in the original production of Fun Home on Broadway in 2015, after originating it at the Public Theater in 2013. "That was one of the most extraordinary journeys in my career and life - it was more than a show, it was one of the best pieces of theatre I've ever been a part of, but it also had this life outside the show itself that took us on so many adventures that were significant, in terms of social activism and the impact we had on people's lives.
“We had experiences like when Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, brought 17 ambassadors from all over the world to the show, including countries where being gay was illegal, and we had the most extraordinary conversation with them afterwards. It felt like this is theatre affecting the world."
But theatre also lives most in the moment of doing it - and make her feel most alive. "Everyone wants you to be doing film and TV, but I get the most joy from live performing. I'm a theatre animal."
Judy Kuhn is in Fiddler on the Roof until 15th June, and the show is booking until 28th September.
Fiddler on the Roof tickets are available now.