NEW YORK — Imagine you’re a big-time producer. Movies, sitcoms.The occasional play.
You take a meeting with a lyricist who swears he’s got the next moneymaker.
“Dancing Jews,” he says.
You lean forward on your desk. “Excuse me?”
“Jews! Dancing!” He can barely contain his excitement. “They sing, too!”
“Let me get this straight,” you say. “Dancing—”
The guy is clearly an idiot.
“And this… story,” you say. “It takes place in Brooklyn? Lower East Side?”
“What the f—?”
“Hear me out!” he jumps in. “The lead character is… are you ready?”
“They sing about the Sabbath!”
“Get out of my office.”
“There’s a pogrom in act two!”
The door slams as he leaves. You shake your head. These fools and their Broadway dreams.
You are savvy. You know the biz isn’t just about finding the hits, it’s about spotting the bombs. You pick up the phone to reward yourself with your favorite dish, corned-beef-on-rye from the deli down the block.
And the lyricist that you just threw out? He and his dancing Jews win nine Tonys, tour five continents, and gross $70 million off a feature film based on what will one day be the longest-running Broadway musical of all time.
Like father, like son
“Understudy is a special kind of hell,” says Michael Bernardi. He is mostly naked as he says this. Reason enough to take him at his word.
Bernardi sits. Pulls off a sock.
“No matter how much you rehearse it in the shower,” he continues, “it’s all just in your brain. To get really comfortable, you have to get it out of your head and into your body.”
He tugs at the other sock. I nod.
I’m sitting in Bernardi’s dressing room, on the third floor of the Broadway Theater eight blocks north of Times Square and home of the current revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The show opened a year ago to rave reviews — three Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical; Drama Desk nods for director Bartlett Sher and for actor Danny Burstein for his portrayal of Tevye (Sher won); poster-worthy praise from the New York Times (“Electrifying!”).
In the production, Michael Bernardi plays Mordcha the innkeeper. (I’d never heard of him either.) But he understudies Tevye — a role he’s played in the year since the show opened, “Once.”
Bernardi is paunchy, of medium height, with black hair and a black beard — think Tevye before the midlife crisis.
He is now down to his underwear — black Calvin Klein boxer briefs. There’s an awkward moment as I juggle simultaneous thoughts: Does getting into character involve changing into underwear that expresses character? And if yes, can I come back later?
He pulls on puffy black pants. Thank God.
I ask Michael how he got into the show. Did he have to audition? Did the director find him?
Bernardi laughs. “I didn’t even have an agent!” he says. “I was playing Tevye in summer stock. You know, some barn in Massachusetts. At the end of the run, another actor told me they were reviving ‘Fiddler’ on Broadway and I should try for a role.”
A no-brainer, except that part about not having an agent.
“So, I called everyone I knew. I emailed Hal Prince” — legendary Broadway producer of “Fiddler,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “West Side Story” and about 50 other shows — “and Sheldon Harnick [the original ‘Fiddler’ lyricist]. Of course, neither replied. So, I found out who was casting the show, made a tape of myself singing ‘Now I Have Everything,’ dropped it off with the receptionist, and…”
So he returned to Los Angeles, where he’d grown up, and took a job in a bookstore.
Until, one Friday, he got an email from Sheldon Harnick.
“It said, ‘Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, Michael, I was busy, but it seems you’ll be part of our “Fiddler” company.’
“And I had no idea what that meant. I thought, ‘Sheldon Harnick’s been in the business 60 years, he knows better than to screw with an actor’s head.’ So I spent the weekend trying not to think about it, but eventually just curled up on my sofa and waited for Monday.”
Monday came, and with it, news: He’d been cast as Mordcha, the innkeeper no one’s ever heard of, and he’d understudy Tevye — the role his father, actor Herschel Bernardi, played on Broadway more than 700 times.
I ask Bernardi what it was like the one night he played Tevye.
“With a powerhouse like Danny in the role, it’s rare an understudy will go on.” Bernardi pauses. His eyes take on a faraway look. “But everyone in this building knows how much this show means to me, because of my dad. So they gave me a date.
“When the night finally came, I was the calmest I’d ever been coming to the theater. I was overcome with this strange feeling of absolute surrender. It was beautiful.”
Bernardi, dressed as Mordcha, puts on his final piece of costume — the same brown leather boots his father wore on Broadway.
As Michael and I chat, other cast members pop their heads into his dressing room to say hi. They fall into two categories: Actors playing Russian-townsfolk Gentiles are tall and blonde, with health-club biceps and faces that belong in Vogue; actors playing Jews look like, well, Jews.
Before he leaves for warm-up, I ask Bernardi a final question: After eight shows a week for a year, how do he and his fellow actors keep it fresh?
Michael rolls his eyes. “Ever since the election, there are lines in this show that are said and heard in ways we’d never imagined.”
The original “Fiddler on the Roof” opened on Broadway in 1964 — 50 years prior to this revival.
That production starred Zero Mostel as Tevye (he won a Tony for the role). The show ran for more than 10 years on Broadway — the first time a musical made it past the 3,000-performance mark. Until it was overtaken by “Grease” in 1980, “Fiddler on the Roof” was the longest-running musical ever. I find this fascinating — and enigmatic. What is it about dancing Jews that keeps audiences coming back? And how can a 50-year-old musical about Russian Hasidim possibly be relevant today?
What I discover is that “Fiddler” is more relevant than ever.
A universal question
“At the core of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ there lies a universal question,” says Adam Kantor. “How do you accept other people whose entire foundation is completely different from your own?”
I speak with Kantor by phone, a couple hours before that night’s performance. Though only in his 20s, Kantor is a Broadway veteran — his resume includes the role of Mark in “Rent.” In “Fiddler,” Kantor plays the nebbishy tailor, Motel Kamzoil.
As Kantor tells it, the presidential election brought the issue of acceptance to the forefront of this “Fiddler” production. Kantor suddenly felt himself affected by lines of dialogue that until then he’d recited hundreds of times.
“There’s this line, when I’m trying to convince Tevye that I should marry his daughter, where I say, ‘Even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness.’ I am literally begging for Tzeitel’s hand — not just from her father, but against all odds and the framework of tradition. It made me think about marriage equality — that Motel has this secret love for Tzeitel, a love that’s considered sinful, and that he wants to marry for love in a time when that’s not possible.
“It’s an issue that’s so close to my heart. And that first Wednesday, after the election, when I got to that line…”
For a moment, Kantor is silent. “I had to stop myself from breaking down right there onstage.”
John Bell, the show’s musical director, feels that since the election “Fiddler” has become not only more relevant, but more universal.
I met Bell backstage about an hour before curtain.
‘That’s what “Fiddler” is — it’s about the breakdown of social mores and traditions’
“We’ve all watched our parents struggle and fight through a changing world,” he says. “And that’s what ‘Fiddler’ is — it’s about the breakdown of social mores and traditions. Something we’re witnessing in America now.”
I ask Bell if he experienced this personally.
Bell smiles. “I come from a family of lawyers,” he says. “For my parents to have a son who wanted to go into the arts, and who’s gay — that was a ‘Fiddler’ moment. That’s why it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not — if you have a family, you are going to relate.”
This idea — that “Fiddler” is both relevant and universal — isn’t just talk. From their first rehearsals, the cast and production team were adamant about supporting refugees.
As Kantor explains, “This show is about a group of people who become displaced. So early on we decided to raise money for UNICEF and the UN Refugee Fund, among others.”
I ask Bernardi if there’s a particular line that, since the election, audiences react to differently.
He doesn’t miss a beat. “Act one. 30 minutes in. Tevye sings, ‘When you’re rich they think you really know.’ I don’t think anyone hears that the way they did before November 8th.”
At 7:55 PM the theater is half-full — or, if you’re like me, and perpetually worried about the future of our people and the relevance of our culture, half-empty.
Adding to this depressing thought is an air of dreariness evoked by the set. The stage looks like the hour before a winter storm, gray and dimly lit. Hanging above stage left is a wooden sign with a single painted word: ANATEBKA.
However, just as I’m beginning to mourn the lack of interest in our culture, the theater fills with a wave of latecomers who flood into their seats like dopamine into an addict’s brain.
Yes! Jews matter.
Overheard during act one, between two audience members sitting next to me, both blonde and wearing crucifixes around their necks:
Gentile 1 (whispering): What are those strings on his shirt?
Gentile 2: It’s a good-luck charm, I think. It’s why he kisses them.
G1: He kissed the door, too, did you see that? The little box on the door?
G2: It’s the same thing.
G2: Yeah. Inside the box.
On one foot
Here’s my 30-second review of the current Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof:”
The show is, in a word, terrific. The story is tight, the acting understated and on-point, and the singing organic — characters break into song for the only reason they ever should: they are so emotionally overwhelmed they have to.
The lighting is miraculous, evoking changing seasons and temperatures that rise and fall as the months pass. The dancing, by Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, is based on the Jerome Robbins original but with a modern flourish that manages, at times, to make these 19th-century shtetl-dwellers — dare I say? — sultry.
Best of all, the show is wonderfully un-Jewy. It’d be easy for the actors to ham it up, and to talk in that sing-song, old-man-Jew voice we use when telling a “zayde” joke.
But the cast never Jews it. Quite the contrary; I felt I was watching real people living through the most pivotal moment of their lives, and that these people happened to be Jewish but could just as easily have been my neighbors down the block. I applaud them and director Bartlett Sher for this choice.
That being said, the show is not without flaws.
Of the “Fiddlers” I’ve enjoyed over the years, this production featured the angriest Golde — and maybe the angriest Broadway character — I’ve ever seen.
Jessica Hecht plays Golde with a shrillness and bite that one might call menopausal. She also appears to be frigid; more often than not, when Tevye reaches for Golde she pulls away at the touch. (You get the feeling that when Tevye sings “Do you love me?” what he’s really asking is, “Do you love me? And if you do, how come we haven’t slept together in 11 years?”)
There are other holes. Can Tzeitel, who is supermodel hot even in ankle-length skirt and long sleeves, truly be that infatuated with such an insecure, back-bent schlemiel?
And why do some characters speak with Eastern European accents and others like they’re from New Jersey?
None of the above should stop you from seeing this show. To be sure, if you haven’t yet seen the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” get tickets now.
If you’ve already seen it, go again. This time take your kids, and grandkids, then afterwards take them for hot chocolate and ask them what they think “Fiddler on the Roof” is actually about. Does the play mirror what’s currently happening in the world today? What can we do about it?
Go soon. The show closes December 31.
Christians love it
After the final curtain, I turn to the little girl behind me. Her name is Melissa. She is knock-kneed and has braces and adorable pigtails. She is here with her grandmother and aunt. I ask her if she liked the show.
“I loved it!” she says. “And I’m Christian!”
“We’re from Minnesota,” says her aunt.
I ask Melissa what she thinks it was about.
“Fairness,” she says. “Treating people friendly. And respecting other religions. Even if they’re strange.”
“Different,” her grandmother corrects.
As they stand to go, Melissa’s aunt leans toward me. “She doesn’t know it yet,” she whispers. “But the guy I’m engaged to is Jewish.”
I look at the stage. It is empty and gray. All that remains is the wooden sign: ANATEBKA.
I turn back to Melissa’s aunt and say, “Mazel tov,” because I have no idea what to make of this.
(The final Broadway performance of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ will be December 31. Author’s note: for pre-arranged scheduling reasons, Judy Kuhn has since assumed the role of Golde. Author has no idea if Kuhn’s Golde is also angry.)
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