Beverly Klein’s many stage credits include Les Misérables (RSC, original cast), Candide, Summerfolk, Romeo and Juliet, The Villains’ Opera and Honk! The Ugly Duckling (National Theatre), Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd (Opera North), Six Characters Looking for an Author (Young Vic), Jerry Springer - The Opera (Edinburgh Festival), Camille (Lyric Hammersmith), The Holy Terror (West End), Night After Night, A Judgement in Stone and Sarrasine (Gloria Theatre Company), Mrs Peachum in The Threepenny Opera (Donmar Warehouse and Scottish Opera), Piaf (Oldham Coliseum and York Theatre Royal), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Six Pictures of Lee Miller (Chichester Festival Theatre).

This month, Klein is doing double duty on the London stage. Last week, she opened in Lindsay Posner’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which transferred to the West End’s Savoy Theatre following its original Christmas run at Sheffield Crucible. Klein reprises her role as Golde, wife to Henry Goodman’s Tevye, the Jewish milkman with a direct line to God. Set against the background of the pogroms in Czarist Russia, the musical tells the tale of a family facing major upheavals in their lives and includes hit songs such as “Tradition”, “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Matchmaker”.

This week, Klein has left the Fiddler company for five weeks to start rehearsals for the Royal Opera House production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, in which she plays the Witch. Will Tuckett’s production has a strictly limited season at the ROH’s Linbury Studio later this month.

Date & place of birth
I was born on 15 January 1954 in the London Hospital, Whitechapel. We lived in Stepney Green when I was little, then the family moved to Stamford Hill.

Lives now…
At the top end of Shaftesbury Avenue. I love being in the heart of Theatreland, partly because I can walk to work every day. I keep coming across people busking the songs from Fiddler on the Roof. On the South Bank the other week this guy was playing “If I Were a Rich Man” – on a kind of xylophone.

I trained at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. I joined after my degree at Warwick University, which in the Seventies was all cheesecloth shirts, platform shoes, Afghan coats and everybody else but me having lots of sex. Today, Mountview is a proper drama school and one of the best places to train in musical theatre; then it was a bit shambolic. But that’s where I learned about Broadway musicals from friends and heard Sondheim for the first time on reel-to-reel tapes that someone brought back from the States. I sort of started to sing then, in a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

What made you first want to become an actor?
I didn’t go a theatre until I was 14 when the school took us see Oliver!, but I had a clever friend at school who put together some little scripts that we did for our teachers and then presented a play in front of the entire school. I was very shy, a dumpy little thing with glasses and curly hair – not dissimilar to how I am now! – but I remember standing at a bus stop with my mum and someone in front of the queue turning round and saying “Oh, you’re the little girl who was in the play. You were very good.” That was it. Fame at the age of eight by the 149 bus stop at the top of our road. From then on I was hooked.

Were any of your family in the theatre?
None at all. My dad was in the East End garment trade, working hard all day as a finisher in a factory. He had to leave because of ill health. Both my dad and my mum then became clerical workers in the civil service. My brother is the successful one, he built himself up from cabbie to businessman. The family are all still a bit dubious about my acting, although they were quite impressed when I eventually made it to the National Theatre. I’m hoping that being in a big West End musical will finally convince them.

If hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
My mother would have liked me to have become a lawyer or something like that. Perhaps I could have made it. I was quick and bright enough at school, but let it all go because I was far too lazy. I still am. Me, my sofa and Sky Plus are the closest of pals.

First big break
Playing the title role in Piaf at Oldham and York, which came completely out of the blue as I’d just been playing Paddington Bear – and I still have the photographs to prove it.

Career highlights to date
Apart from Fiddler, there are three. Playing Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd for Opera North is one. Another was Sarrasine with Neil Bartlett’s Gloria company, a kind of chamber opera with music by Nicolas Bloomfield. It released me from what I thought was going to be my fate, playing crummy character parts in musicals. This was real avant garde stuff, and for the first time in my life I felt involved in the creation of something unique. I also loved being at the National in Trevor Nunn’s production of Summerfolk.

Favourite co-stars
It’s being part of an ensemble that really matters to me, like the Candide company at the National, which was very special. Otherwise, it’s Simon Russell Beale in Summerfolk and Bette Bourne in Sarrasine – that man is a legend. Obviously, I love working with the amazing Henry Goodman in this production of Fiddler on the Roof.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
The Punchdrunk Faust, the promenade production at the old power station in Wapping. Apart from being produced by Colin Marsh, who I was in Les Misérables with many years ago, this was an extraordinary experience and I wanted to go back and see it again and again to catch up. There was so much happening that it felt like I’d missed half of what was going on. Shows like that harken back to where my heart and soul is – in that really creative theatrical experience where the storytelling isn’t linear.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It came from Sheila Hancock when I worked with her in Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone at the Lyric Hammersmith. She told me not to read reviews. In that show I sang a dozen songs, went mad and murdered a family with a shotgun. My character went through this amazing experience, then a reviewer said something like, “a perky performance by Beverly Klein”. Sheila said critics don’t necessarily understand the kind of women we portray, so if you are playing somebody who is dangerous, needy or murderous and you are not a Rosalind, don’t bother to read them. I think it was Angela Lansbury who had offered her the same advice. Occasionally I can’t help myself though and I do read reviews, but I invariably find the obvious statement, like the one for Fiddler that said I wave my hands about too much. Well come on, I’m a Jewish lady! What do you expect?

Why did you want to accept the role of Golde in this production of Fiddler on the Roof? I wasn’t sure that I wanted to initially. I had played Golde before, 13 years ago in a West Yorkshire Playhouse production directed by Matthew Warchus. I was far too young then and at a point in my life where I wasn’t relating to my Jewish roots. I’m so pleased I said yes this time. Apart from anything, we had so much fun in Sheffield, both working on the show and making a contribution in rehearsals. It’s also rare for a woman of my age to find roles you can really connect with. Golde is fascinating – a very simple woman who is committed to the status quo within an environment that completely supports everything that she believes. But here she is in a society that hasn’t changed much for a hundred years, leading an extremely hard life where she can just about get enough food on the table. Getting the daughters married is about the extent of her desires, yet by the end she’s going off to a completely new environment in New York. I want to honour Golde’s story every night.

What do you mean about your Jewish roots?
The show is set in Czarist Russia in 1905 and when everyone is leaving the shtetl in the Ukraine to escape the pogroms and make another life abroad. I connect that history closely to my own family experience. They were from very much the same part of the world near Kiev and did exactly that, except they ended up in London.

How relevant is all of this to a modern audience?
The particular issues here of a diaspora and changing moral values and cultural structures absolutely connects to so many lives. In the UK today, we have people living here who have come from across the world, all of them either struggling to find their place in a new society or maintain the status quo within a closed community, even having to face the fact that their children want to assimilate into society at large or marry outside of their faith and they maybe don’t want them to. It’s terribly pertinent to what goes on now.

Has the production changed much since Sheffield?
We had a very small and intimate company at Sheffield, which is one of the reasons why the production had such power. But now we’ve extended the cast and we’ve also gone back to some of the original choreography laid down by Jerome Robbins. The transfer to the Savoy has given our small-scale version a brand new lease of life.

What was your main challenge in this production?
The dances. But I’m enjoying most of all feeling part of a company that really is so totally behind the production and supports each other.

What’s your favourite number from Fiddler on the Roof?
That’s easy. The song “Do You Love me” – just me and Henry on stage – is a moment of real understanding of how far two human beings have come after 25 years of living together. When Golde sings, “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. For 25 years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” and Tevye says, “So you love me?” and then she replies, “I suppose I do”. That for me is just magical. I’m coming all over emotional just talking about it.

It’s a contrast with Into the Woods which you are performing during the run of Fiddler. How do you fit in both shows?
I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to do both. It’s partly a testament to our director Lindsay Posner’s desire to keep the original Fiddler company together and to Will Tuckett’s generosity in allowing me to do it either side of his production of Into the Woods. I was contracted to the ENO long before I accepted Fiddler at Sheffield. When the possibility of a West End transfer came up, I thought I couldn’t possibly be in both productions, but we resolved the issues. I must admit, if I hadn’t been able to do Fiddler in London, it would have broken my heart.

So how do you feel about another Golde singing “Do You Love Me” with Henry Goodman?
There is a tiny part of me that can’t bear the thought of another actor playing Golde while I’m away. I mean, how often does a role like that come along?

What will audiences get from Fiddler on the Roof?
It’s much more than just a musical with great songs, like “If I Were a Rich Man”. It’s a tremendously moving experience and extremely funny as well. And in this production Henry Goodman is simply fantastic as Tevye. It’s surely the role he was born to play.

- Beverly Klein was speaking to Roger Foss

Fiddler on the Roof is playing at the West End’s Savoy Theatre. Klein is absent from the production for five weeks from 1 June, while Into the Woods runs, for 18 performances only, at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre from 14 to 30 June 2007.