Keeping 'Tradition' Alive: How the 'Fiddler on the Roof' Revival Became a Family Affair

Billboard

Every production of Fiddler on the Roof -- the 1964 musical turned 1971 film turned school and community theater classic -- starts the exact same way: the mournful fiddle solo that (spoiler alert) runs through the entire show. Then Tevye, the poor milkman born in Sholem Aleichem's 1894 stories Tevye and His Daughters, begins explaining its title: "A fiddler on the roof...sounds crazy, no?"

At a recent Wednesday matinee (Aug. 24), Michael C. Bernardi stood near the edge of the stage at the Broadway Theatre, reciting the monologue. As the understudy of the current revival directed by Bartlett Sher (with five-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein in the starring role), Bernardi was ever-so-slightly stiff. He'd played Tevye before, but that was in a summer stock production in Plymouth, Mass. -- not Broadway, where most nights he was Anatevka's innkeeper. The pressure, for his first and probably only performance, was not insignificant. Still, he finished the speech, stamped his foot and declared what the audience would soon see is Fiddler's defining principle: "TRADITION!"


"Let's just say I feel 10 pounds lighter!" Bernardi said, laughing over the phone a few days after the show. "I looked at the show for so long as this big ring of fire, and then after jumping into it, realized it was just a wonderful hot tub."

The relief wasn't just of an actor making it through their first star turn on the Great White Way (which, after quickly shaking off the nerves, he did with aplomb). Bernardi's late father, Herschel Bernardi, endures as one of Fiddler's most memorable stars, having played Tevye 702 times during the show's initial run and reprised the role for the 1981 revival. Herschel even helped bring -- 30 years before Gwen Stefani and Eve -- the Fiddler on the Roof cast recording to No. 138 on the Billboard 200 in 1967. For that opening stomp, Bernardi was wearing the same brown leather boots his father wore each night as Tevye -- stepping into his shoes both literally and figuratively for one performance only, and completing a narrative so poetic Aleichem himself would be impressed.


"Throughout my life, the memory of my father has filled me with an incredible amount of inspiration, mixed with a deep sense of loss and incompletion," says Bernardi, whose father died in 1986, when he was just 19 months old. "I've been nervous about this for months, and subliminally for my entire life. But to be standing on that stage and really feeling that connection with audience, feeling those laughs, and feeling that I was telling the story of Fiddler on the Roof on a Broadway stage...a peace came over me."

Bernardi didn't always aspire to follow in his father's footsteps. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was instantly drawn to acting -- but shied away from musicals. "The truth is, for many many years, I wanted to separate myself from my father's career," he says. "So I was really into Shakespeare, and Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill -- just like a rebellious kid, saying, 'I'm nothing like my parents and I'm going my own way.'" After studying at SUNY Purchase and not finding great success in Hollywood, an invitation to star in that summer stock production (at Plymouth's Priscilla Beach Theater) from a former mentor arrived at just the right moment. "You get to a certain age, and realize you've been basically swimming upstream," he adds. "You realize, 'Oh right -- I am my mother's son. I am my father's son.'"


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Of course, Fiddler itself is about exactly that -- the push and pull between parents and children and those forces completely outside their control, as Tevye struggles to secure his daughters' futures in a fast-changing world. "It was designed to take a humanistic view of a foreign culture," says Bernardi of the show, which has been arguably among the greatest forces (alongside Seinfeld and Barbra Streisand) in normalizing Jewish culture in America. "It really did win the hearts and minds of so many when it came to the acceptance of the Jewish people."


The show centers on immigration -- an issue that's only become more fraught since Sholem Aleichem (and Bernardi's ancestors and, for that matter, this writer's) took the trip that began where Fiddler ends: from the train to the boat to America. "As much as I love the fact that Fiddler can be so relevant today, it breaks my heart that Fiddler is so relevant today!" says Bernardi. "Yeah -- it's the immigrant experience. Like, that applies to other immigrants. Religious oppression exists today, displaced peoples exist today. I hope that the show can serve as a blueprint for the cultures that are under fire now -- I would love to see a work of art that hits the heart of zeitgeist surrounding the Muslim experience in America, for example."

Ultimately Bernardi's "homecoming," as he calls it, sums up the show's themes -- identity and culture, family and (of course) tradition -- to mark another chapter in a story that's as fundamentally American as it is Jewish. Fittingly, in Sher's production, Fiddler begins and ends with Tevye in modern dress, reading Aleichem's story out of a book. "I love about setting it up as someone looking back at his ancestors," says Bernardi, "At the end, everything is falling apart, we're leaving Anatevka -- this practice of Judaism is forcing us to leave another home. In that moment of losing everything, the fiddler appears and plays the same line the play begins with, but pauses before the last note. Dah dun dun dun dun... That second to last note begs the question: do we keep playing the song? Ultimately, the only thing that really unites all sects of Judaism -- Hasidic and Reform and people forgetting to light half the menorah candles -- is the culture and the art, the things that have survived through all the oppression. We're always asking: do we continue playing the song, or not? That second to last note is everything.

"But every time I get to that part of the show, no matter how tired I am or distracted I am, I stop and think, 'Of course, yes.' I need that final note. This music must survive. Even if I'm just playing a little part of it."