August 25, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
At yesterday’s matinee of the current Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, a young actor who usually performs the role of Mordcha, the Inkeeper, went on as Tevye for the vacationing Danny Burstein. With his performance, Michael C. Bernardi, at just thirty-one-years-old, became the youngest actor to ever play Tevye in any of its five Broadway productions over the last fifty years. Bernardi is following in the tradition of his father, Herschel Bernardi, who was the third Tevye in the original Broadway production (following Zero Mostel and Luther Adler). Herschel Bernardi played it more than 700 times on Broadway and hundreds of more times on the road, culminating in a Tony Award nomination for a Fiddler revival in 1981. And it’s not enough that these two Bernardi’s have been Teyves — Herschel’s father and Michael’s grandfather — Beryl Bernardi, played the role of the dairyman in the Yiddish Theatre in the 1920s, long before there were fiddlers on any roofs.
I first met Michael Bernardi nearly fifteen years ago, when as a seventeen-year-old, he was getting ready to audition for colleges and universities. We were brought together by his mother, who asked me to offer advice and some coaching. We discovered an immediate connection and Michael wound up being accepted to the Purchase acting program (where I went) and having the same acting teacher I did, Joan Potter. I was among Joan’s first students at Purchase in 1975, and Michael was among her last in 2007, when she retired at nearly eighty years-old, which made for some nice symmetry. After graduation, the friendship between Michael and I continued as mentor and friend.
In 2014, I received an email from a man named Bob Malone, who was writing to tell me that he was personally staking a fortune into restoring the old barn theatre I once performed in as a teenager in Plymouth, Massachusetts over forty years ago: the Priscilla Beach Theatre. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought I would return to this idyllic place of my youth. In fact, I thought it had been condemned. And it had been! But it was getting a multi-million dollar renovation and Bob wanted to know if I would be interested in returning to direct the inaugural production in this 150 year old barn.
Would I be interested in returning? What could possibly keep me away? Bob sweetened the pot by allowing me the choice of any musical I wanted to direct (providing it wasn’t an obscure title and one he could sell). So I chose Fiddler, which I think I had been waiting my whole life to direct without really knowing it. And of course, in choosing Fiddler, I only had one person in mind for Tevye. If Michael Bernardi wasn’t born to play it, he was at least born into playing it.
Though Herschel Bernardi passed away when Michael was not even two years old, he always felt at one with his father. The chance I was giving him to play Tevye honored his family’s history and gave him the opportunity to continue their memory in the name of “tradition.” On his opening night in Plymouth, Michael was interviewed for an article in the Boston Globe and spoke perceptively of some of his discoveries while playing Tevye: “It’s amazing the power of theater that can unite two men who only knew each other for two years, unite a father and son from beyond the grave. I mean ultimately it’s not about me. It’s about my father, my grandfather, the Jewish people, all displaced people.”
In a wonderful and informative article in Tuesday’s New York Times, Michael was interviewed about what it has meant for him to go from playing a role largely identified with his dad, last year in summer stock, and now on Broadway. “[This revival has] provided me with the fatherly lessons that I’ve craved for over 30 years and never got,” he told the Times. “Regardless of if I fall into the orchestra pit, it’s going to be an incredible sense of pride to know that I stood on the Broadway stage and played Tevye.”
I can report that Michael did not fall into the orchestra pit, or drop one line, or seem too young for the role for one moment. His growth as an artist and as a person into the role of Tevye, even with this one performance, was a thing of beauty. He got it right. This was no mere understudy performance. It was Michael’s birthright to play this role on a Broadway stage, and I feel blessed I was there to witness it. I was as proud of him as if he were my own son. He was vocally strong and emotionally connected to Tevye in ways that were richer than what he did last summer.
As Malcolm Gladwell notes, it’s all about putting in the hours. For Michael, appearing on stage nightly, eight times a week with this current Fiddler company since last November, has given him a confidence that can’t be taught. It can only be experienced. Michael slipped into Tevye’s shoes yesterday afternoon and made it a perfect fit (as Motel the Tailor would say).
Well, boots actually. And you can read more about that by reading the New York Times article, “Michael C. Bernardi Channels His Father for a Day as Tevye in Fiddler.”
If you are interested in additional essays as well as my upcoming book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” please visit my website: http://www.ronfassler.org/