Tevye, But Not ‘Larger Than Life’

Tevye, But Not ‘Larger Than Life’

Exclusive: Q&A with the new ‘Fiddler’ patriarch.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Danny Burstein as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof. Joan Marcus
Danny Burstein as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof. Joan Marcus

As “Fiddler on the Roof,” in its fifth Broadway revival, moves into its second month (to rave notices), we caught up with the new Tevye, the five-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein. He’s one of those Broadway actors whose range seems limitless. In the 2014 revival of “Cabaret,” directed by Sam Mendes, he played Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor who woos the owner of his boardinghouse, Fraulein Schneider. In a Jewish Week interview at the time, Burstein said that he found a personal resonance in portraying a Jew living in Germany during those turbulent years. Burstein “knew a lot about this particular time anyway,” but spent additional time doing research about European Jewry and the ascent of Nazism. “I think anybody who’s Jewish has a natural curiosity and a responsibility to know about it.”

Burstein also played the irrepressible and enterprising (and hilarious) U.S. soldier Luther Billis in the 2008 revival of “South Pacific,” and he portrayed the sensitive and knowing boxing trainer in Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy.” Both of those productions were directed by Barlett Sher, and the two team up again in the new “Fiddler.” The timing of the play, with “people on the move, being driven out of their homes by civil war and oppression,” as Sher told the cast before the opening, gives the show a contemporary resonance. Which may help explain, in part, Burstein’s decision to play down the “clownish” elements that some actors have brought to the Tevye role. Writing in The New York Times, theater critic Charles Isherwood summed up the show, and Burstein’s performance, this way: “Mr. Burstein’s way with a classic Jewish joke is assured but unforced, his performance affecting but not overscaled, in keeping with the production’s emphasis on the musical’s emotional underpinnings, rather than the frosting of shticky comedy.”

How does this show resonate for you as a Jewish actor?

My parents raised me to be very proud of my Jewish background. It’s an emotional core with me. It’s in my DNA and family history. I watched “Shoah” on TV with my parents, and then they took me to meet Roman Vishniac when I was 16 years old. On opening night, my co-star, Jessica Hecht [who plays Tevye’s wife Golde], gave me a book of his photographs, “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” and it was so meaningful to me that she did that.

Have you appeared in “Fiddler” before?

Yes, first in a community theater when I was 16 and then again when I was 21, in summer stock with Theodore Bikel playing Tevye. Sheldon Harnick’s brother, Jay, directed the summer stock production. [Harnick is the “Fiddler” lyricist.]

What’s the most exciting thing for you about being in “Fiddler?”

I’ve always been a theater nerd. I like to look up all the shows that have played a particular theater. I realized that when I sing “If I Were a Rich Man,” at the Broadway Theatre, I’m standing on the same spot where Ethel Merman belted out “Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses” in the original 1959 production of “Gypsy.”

How difficult is it to get out of the shadow of Zero Mostel, who originated the role of Tevye?

His cadences inform the ways in which the lines were written — if it didn’t work for him, then they changed it. But I interpret the character differently from the way that he did. I don’t want to play the character as larger than life. I want the laughs to come out of the situation rather than out of my being clownish.

What do you think makes “Fiddler” so compelling?

It’s a universal tale — everyone understands loss, change, breaking of traditions, watching kids take off on their own, what it’s like to be forced from your home, and man’s inhumanity to man.

Does it seem dated to you in terms of the way that Tevye reacts to his daughter’s intermarriage?

No, because it was illegal, in that time and place, for her ever to go back to being Jewish again.

Do you see the show as essentially a tragedy?

It’s the Jewish spirit. Being the Chosen People is part of our lot in life and yet we persevere. You see it in Hofesh [Shechter]’s choreography at the end of this production; the cast members form a circle, make strong and defiant gestures, and then go back to hauling their possessions on their back, bringing that spirit, religion, and morality with them wherever they’re going “to wait for the Messiah somewhere else.”

This is your fourth show with the same director, Bartlett Sher. What do you enjoy about working with him?

He and I are both interested in the depth of every moment. If you come back two months later, the show will be even better. It’s not about egos, it’s about hashing it out, asking questions, trying to understand things — we never stop exploring and discussing how to make each moment richer.

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