Dudu Fisher: A life on stage

The entertainer looks back on a career spanning five decades, a wide musical repertoire and most of the globe.

By
April 23, 2015 06:18
Dudu Fisher

Dudu Fisher. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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It may have been a loss to the world of dentistry, but Dudu Fisher’s decision to pursue a music career instead of donning a white smock has still put bright smiles on countless faces.

“It was early 1973 and I had recently finished my army service, serving in the rabbinical choir. My plan was to go study dentistry,” explains the effusive 63-yearold world-renowned singer and stage performer. He’s sitting in the dining room of a crowded Jerusalem hotel where he is spending Hol Hamoed Passover with his entire clan – his wife Yaffa, their three grown children and three grandchildren.

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Occasionally, one of his young granddaughters rushes up behind him at the breakfast table and hides until Fisher spies her and wraps her in a bear hug.

“One night, I attended a friend’s wedding and was honored by singing the shehecheyanu blessing under the huppa,” he says. “Afterward, a guest I didn’t know came up to me and asked me where I was a cantor. I told him I was only 21 and was planning on going to dentistry school.

“‘Are you crazy? With your voice, you’re going to be inside the mouths of people for the rest of your life?’ he said to me. He introduced himself as Morris Hirsch, the president of a synagogue in Winnipeg, and offered me $5,000 to come and serve as cantor for the High Holy Days. I didn’t really have a clue how to lead the services, but we shook hands on it, and I was able to buy my first car.”

Like most opportunities in Fisher’s life, the stint in Winnipeg was a great success, following a crash course he undertook with a rabbinical teacher. And the experience pushed his dental dreams into the nearest trash receptacle.

“I was very flattered by the admiration and compliments I received,” he recalls. “And all the mothers were coming up to me to introduce their ‘Harriets’ and ‘Janets.’ I was like a peacock walking around.”

The high ended on Yom Kippur with the outbreak of war back home, but it took Fisher until Succot to find a spot on a plane to return to Israel and join his reserves unit. Following the war, he attended the Tel Aviv Academy of Music for two years. At age 22, he was appointed cantor of the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv.

Fisher has spent the last five decades bringing traditional Hassidic, Yiddish and cantorial music to audiences around the globe. And along the way, he broke out of the ‘Jewish entertainer’ category to become internationally known in the 1980s for his defining performance as Jean Valjean in the Broadway version of Les Miserables.

By his own account, Fisher spends about 60% of his time performing abroad, including annual month-long stints in Florida and in Branson, Missouri, where he brings Jerusalem to the Bible Belt. It’s a long journey from the streets of Petah Tikva and Tivon where Fisher grew up, singing in youth choirs.

“I was always singing, whether in a choir in our synagogue in Tivon, or in the yeshiva choir in high school,” says Fisher, who will be performing at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on June 7. “From there, it was a natural tra  nsition to go to the IDF choir, but I never thought there was something special in my voice. Even in the IDF, I wasn’t the one chosen for solos. That’s why I had never considered pursuing singing professionally, and planned to be a dentist.”

Fisher places a big emphasis on family and stresses that he’s the product of two miracles, one on his mother’s side and one on his father’s.

“My father was a survivor from Poland, who was saved by a family who hid his family in a bunker under their house,” he says. “Many years later, he decided to look for the people who saved him and he found them in the early 1980s. We used to send them boxes with food, clothing and money.”

On his mother’s side, Fisher tells the family story of when his grandmother was undergoing a very difficult pregnancy with his mother in Riga, Latvia. “The doctors recommended ending the pregnancy in the ninth month to save my grandmother’s life, so she sent her sister to pray for her in a shul. It was night and she was standing near the Aron Kodesh on the women’s side, and another woman asked her what was wrong.

“When my aunt explained, the woman said ‘come with me’ and brought her to the Lubavitcher rebbe. After hearing her story, he gave her a note written in Yiddish – which we still have – that said: ‘A healthy baby will be born, don’t do anything.’ She rushed back to the hospital, and the doctors came running to her saying, ‘an hour after you left, your sister went into a normal labor and a girl was born.’ That was my mother.

“So from one side, I’m the product of the Lubavitcher rebbe and from the other side, I’m the product of a Christian family from Poland who saved my father and his family. If not for those two interventions, I’m not here.”

Fisher’s faith and traditional lifestyle have sustained him over the years, but have also produced challenges for his expansion into the world of secular entertainment. When he first developed his career, there was no conflict, as he flourished in the cantorial field, including a three-year stint in Johannesburg and a High Holy Days gig at Kutsher’s Hotel in the Catskills that lasted 32 years.


But an invitation in 1986 to perform at a cantorial benefit concert in London for orphans proved to be a life-changing experience for the then-34-year-old Fisher.

“I stayed with my cousin Shirley in London so the organization could save the hotel money,” he recalls. “And I kept hearing this music, as I was walking down the street, and when I was in her house.

“‘What are you listening to?’ I asked her. ‘Oh, it’s Les Mis and you have to see the show. I saw it and I immediately could picture you in it,’ she answered me.”

“So, I went to see it, and boom! That was it. I went to see it again the next day.

Through the show, I’m sitting there saying to myself, ‘I can do this, I can do this.’” When he returned to Israel, Fisher sat with his manager and told him he didn’t want to perform any more cantorial, Yiddish or Hassidic music. He wanted to be Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

“He asked me, ‘what’s Les Mis in Hebrew?’ Neither of us knew so I went down to the Steimatzky’s bookstore underneath us and asked them for the book, which I found out was called Aluvei Hahayim. I ran back upstairs and showed it to him. He took a brochure from his desk drawer advertising the coming season at the Cameri Theater, and the featured production was Aluvei Hahayim.

“The puzzles in my life have been put together in a way that only a higher power could have arranged all these pieces like that,” he adds.

Fisher auditioned for the Cameri role and won it over more established contenders, partially due to being championed by the show’s British director, Stephen Pimlott.

“Stephen told them, ‘if you don’t take Dudu, then I’m going to bring him back to London,’” recalls Fisher.

Les Miserables became the longest-running show in Israel (1987-1990) and made Fisher a household name. But the country wasn’t big enough to contain his talent. Invited to England in 1988 to take part in a Royal Command performance of Les Miserables hosted by the Queen, Fisher impressed the show’s producer Cameron Mackintosh, who invited Fisher to join the show’s cast in the West End and later – in 1993 – on Broadway.

Fisher’s only stipulation was being exempt from the weekly Friday night and Saturday matinee shows, which Mackintosh readily agreed to. But battles with the Actors Equity union over the pay scale for his replacement eventually proved to be too much of a headache, and he left the show in 1994.

“Cameron was fighting for me for two years, and when I asked him why, he said two things,” recalls Fisher. “‘First of all, because I love you, and I really think that you were the best Jean Valjean out there. And secondly, don’t worry, I made a lot of money because of you – all of the “chosen” who had seen Les Miserables came back to see it because of you.’” “But as a result of that experience, I’m now known in New York as the first actor who wouldn’t appear on Friday nights. I became the Sandy Koufax of Broadway,” says Fisher, referring to the baseball great who sat out from the World Series due to Yom Kippur. “Ever since then, I’ve never gotten another job on Broadway.”

But even that turned out to Fisher’s benefit, as he subsequently launched his own off-Broadway shows which he has taken on the road, including Never on Friday, Something Old, Something New, Dudu Fisher Coming to America, and currently Jerusalem.

He hopes that the growing popularity of a six-week long run of the show in Branson, Missouri, will enable him to buy a small theater there where he can continue performing in the coming decades. But whether that dream succeeds or not, Fisher will continue to sing.

“It doesn’t matter whether I’m singing hazzanut or performing in a show – for me the stage is a sacred place,” he says. “It’s my life. Happiness for me is a microphone in my hand, a stage and an audience. It’s where I hope I die.”

For Dudu Fisher, may it be until 120.

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