Understudy Michael Bernardi is anxiously awaiting the call for his chance to perform the role of Tevye in this Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. And when he does his father, Herschel, will be with him. That is, in spirit, because Herschel Bernardi died 30 years ago, at the age of 62, when Michael was just a baby.
Tevye, the milkman, is at the center of Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock and Joseph Stein’s musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem's story of Eastern European shtetl-dwelling Jews. Herschel played the role in 1967, replacing Zero Mostel and Luther Adler, and then again in a 1981 revival, receiving a Tony Award nomination for his performance.
“I feel that pressure, but I’m also grateful,” Michael says.
Playing Tevye last year at the Priscilla Beach Theater in Plymouth, MA, Michael wore the same costume his father wore on Broadway. The shirt still retained his father's smell, that of an old book, he recalls. It was a “strong, masculine musk that really smelled good,” says Michael’s mother, Teri, Herschel Bernardi’s widow.
His smell is Michael’s only memory of his father. Wearing his costume, he feared that too, would dissipate. “I realized once I perform in it, his smell would be replaced with my own.” He asked his father for guidance. “Papa, can I wear your clothes?” And he heard him answer, “Your clothes.”
Now in his Broadway debut, Michael plays Mordcha, the innkeeper, serving drinks to Tevye to celebrate his daughter’s engagement to Lazar Wolf. Wearing again part of his father’s costume, Michael walks the streets of Anatevka in his father’s boots. “Sometimes I feel like they’re swallowing me—like a little kid playing dress up in his father’s shoes. Sometime it feels completely natural,” Michael says.
Those boots came with him from the Boston production. But when his mother gave them to him, they were too tight. Teri convinced Michael to have them stretched. She said Herschel used to say, there was no greater sin than if someone owned a piano and never played it. “So play the boots,” she said.
Picking them up from the cobbler, Michael thanked him for fitting his father’s boots to him. It turns out, that cobbler worked especially with shoes for Broadway productions and that shoemaker’s father had made these very boots for Herschel—two sons following in the footsteps of the father.
Through Fiddler on the Roof, Michael psychically connects with his father and his grandfather, Berel Bernardi, who was an actor in the Yiddish theatre. Now having played Tevye, he feels more complete. “Tevye was missing,” Michael says. Just as his father before him, he learns from the character.
“Tevye is teaching me what it means to be a father and what it means to be a man. As paternal as Tevye is, he also has a childlike joy. Men don’t have to only be tough, strong and decisive. He doesn’t know everything all the time.”
Sharing this role is the closest thing to actually meeting his father, Michael says, affirming their strong connection and healing the pain of growing up without him.
They’re meeting as men, Teri says, and Michael is confronting the fear of not living up to his father’s renown.
Lyricist Sheldon Harnick calls Herschel his favorite Tevye, and is touched that Michael is now taking on the role, even if only when full-time Tevye, Danny Burstein, can’t make it, he says. Herschel was a natural singer and “masculine and paternal” in the role.
Reflecting on Tevye, Michael thought of his own father’s financial struggles—as an actor supporting his family. Herschel wanted to portray Tevye as more loveable and realistic, Teri Bernardi explained, and she saw her late husband play the role at least 40 times.
As for Harnick, he hopes all Bernardi [men] will end up playing Tevye.
“When people saw Herschel they never forgot him,” Teri says. Audiences continue to connect with Herschel through Michael. During the run in Boston, some dug out their Playbills of Herschel Bernardi in Fiddler on the Roof to show his son.
Although Michael long thought about playing Tevye one day, he didn’t think the opportunity would come so soon. “I always loved Fiddler, but it was also hard to navigate the show, because it represents so much loss, the loss of my father, and so much pain. On a subliminal level, I was avoiding it and immersed myself in everything else.”
Studying Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and filmmaking, Michael kept his distance from Anatevka. He has only ever seen his father play the role in short YouTube clips and didn’t want to see other revivals and anyone else but his father play Tevye. “I forgot to get tickets,” Michael says of other revivals.
Still, Michael resembles his father. “People tell me I get my talent from my father, but it’s my mother who is the most dramatic person,” Michael says.
Teri says seeing Michael in the role in Boston was a sacred experience, almost like seeing Herschel again. His brain is wired like his father. They even have similar walks. When she first saw him onstage, she grabbed her heart and thought, “Oh what Hesch would feel. It’s beyond nachas.”
This Father’s Day, Michael is thinking about all fathers, those here and not, and the effect they have on us. He will prepare to perform as his father once did. He looks into a mirror, takes a breath in, closes his eyes and then breathes out. There is a shift in the room, Michael says, as he enters Anatevka, perhaps alongside Herschel.
Fiddler on the Roof is playing now at the Broadway Theater.