Danny Burstein Breaks Tradition With Fiddler

News   The Journey of Danny Burstein — Advice From Sondheim at 18 to Finally Having His Name Above the Title
 
16 roles and five Tony nominations later, Broadway's resident chameleon is finally headlining a show by bringing one of musical theatre's most beloved leading men to life.
Danny Burstein
Danny Burstein

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When Danny Burstein, 51, opens in Fiddler on the Roof this season, it will mark his 16th Broadway show — and his first time as the above-the-title leading man.

In early 2013, Burstein was performing Talley's Folly Off-Broadway when director Bartlett Sher, who he'd previously worked with on South Pacific, attended a performance. Afterward, Sher confided that he'd been asked to direct Fiddler in the 2016 season — and that Burstein was at the top of everyone's list for Tevye. "Anything could change in two and a half years," the Tony Award-winning director warned him. Burstein didn't want to obsess about the role, so he tried to put the conversation out of his head.

Fiddler on the Roof had been a part of Burstein's life since he was a teenager growing up in New York City. By the age of 21, he'd done three productions of the landmark Broadway musical. At the MUNY in St. Louis, his take on the small role of Mendel, the rabbi's son, led legendary Tevye, Theodore Bikel, to proclaim: "Danny, my boy! You will be my next Motel."

Mentorship and the passing on of knowledge to younger generations has been of monumental importance throughout Burstein's life. In recent seasons on Broadway, his roles have included Herr Schultz in Cabaret and Buddy Plummer in Follies. Burstein names the writers of these shows amongst his heroes growing up.

Danny Burstein in <i>South Pacific</i>
Danny Burstein in South Pacific Photo by Joan Marcus

"Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler), Stephen Sondheim (Follies), John Kander (Cabaret)… they were and still are my heroes. I never expected I'd get to work with them. And I feel that way not just toward musical theatre writers — but also toward actors and directors and everyone else I get to work with. The sound designers! When I was a kid, I collected cast recordings, and I memorized all of the names on the back cover. So to walk in a room and see these names sitting there… I'm extremely lucky to be living in this particular time, when all of these amazing people are here, working among us."

In some cases, Burstein's relationships with these collaborators go back more than three decades. When only 18 years old, he wrote to Stephen Sondheim about his Queens College production of Merrily We Roll Along, in which he was playing Frank. Burstein's letter was so lengthy that Sondheim invited him over to his apartment so that his questions could be fully addressed with a face-to-face discussion. Just as teenage Burstein arrived, James Lapine was leaving, as he and Sondheim were at work on Sunday in the Park with George at the time. For three hours, Sondheim spoke with Burstein about Merrily and the craft of musical theatre. "He was completely open and honest, and taught me a lot about giving back," Burstein muses. That sense of generosity to the next generation now extends to Yale, NYU and other universities where Burstein works with young theatre artists.

Watch Burstein perform "Buddy's Blues" at the Tony Awards below.

Burstein's career has kept him mostly in New York theatre, although he did study at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1989, when communist Russia was under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. His impressions of that time weigh on him as he thinks about Anatevka, the town in 1905 Russia where Fiddler takes place. "In 1989, Russia was filthy and run-down and the people were struggling, and yet I saw them laugh through their pain and enjoy their lives. They seemed to cry the way that we laugh. Tears would just fall out of their eyes, and they didn't see it as a bad thing. It was just an emotion that they were in touch with." There is a shared mindset Burstein senses with the world of Fiddler, though the time period in Russia is nearly a century apart. "Like that, the show is about the struggle of life, and the love and laughter you have through all of it, that are what makes it worth living."

With a career filled with both plays and musicals, and productions both on Broadway and off, Burstein is considered by many to be the consummate journeyman actor of the New York stage. He understudied or stood by on six of his first eight Broadway shows. The ninth show, The Drowsy Chaperone, was a turning point.

More than a decade ago, Burstein received a frantic phone call from a friend, who had just booked a commercial. The commercial meant that this pal had to drop out of a reading he'd been rehearsing, which was two days later. Could Danny take over? He jumped to it, and the reading found him playing five different characters with wacky accents. A week later, Burstein received another call, this time from a producer named Roy Miller who had been in attendance. Would he be interested in doing a workshop of a show called The Drowsy Chaperone? From his last-minute, informal performance, Roy could tell that he'd be perfect for it. Burstein came close to saying no, when his wife, Broadway actress Rebecca Luker, waved at him from across the room: "Do it," she encouraged. He did, and the rest is quite literally Broadway history. Drowsy Chaperone garnered Burstein his first Tony Award nomination, of the five he now possesses.

Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein
Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

On his way to our interview, Burstein found out that Fiddler rehearsals would be delayed for a few days. Rather than being glad for the reprieve, Burstein is disappointed. He's anxious to get started. "I'm at the very bottom of a mountain right now, looking all the way up," he explains. "I'm ready to get this show on. When I did South Pacific and Follies, I knew I was following in the very big footsteps of Myron McCormick and Gene Nelson. Now I'm following Zero Mostel, whose shoes are the biggest to fill. It's daunting. But I'm as eager as ever to start.

"I never try to imitate though; I always want to make each role my own, but while also showing my respect to the people who came before. There are certain things you have to do the way the originals did it, because the show was written for them. In Drowsy Chaperone, Aldolpho was written for me, and future actors who play that part can't help but follow along by doing certain things. That's okay. That doesn't mean I won't try to make every part in a revival just as real and important and immediate as it originally was done. I always put myself inside of the role, and simultaneously honor the people before me. Zero Mostel and Theo, and Herschel Bernardi, and Paul Lipson are all my teachers in a way, because they blazed the Tevye trail for me. I bring them with me, and they're on my shoulders as I look up the mountain."

Hungry to move into the Broadway Theatre, where the show will begin previews Nov. 20, Burstein ruminates: "Years ago, my wife was in a concert at Carnegie Hall, where she and Elaine Stritch were the last two performers. They were pacing, and Rebecca said, 'God, it's still so hard, this thing we do to ourselves." Elaine responded: "I don't trust anybody who doesn't get nervous!' I have always agreed with that. Getting nervous is important. It means that you care. I'm excited and terrified."

Watch Burstein sing "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" from South Pacific.

Treasuring history as a genuine part of the present is inherent in Burstein's divulgences. He proudly admits kissing the stage floor he's working on when the mood strikes. He references shows he saw as a kid that still inspire him. He often thinks of a story Sheldon Harnick told him about when Fiddler on the Roof played Japan. Local people asked Harnick: "How were you able to write about all of these things that are so uniquely Japanese?" "That proves how universal the show is!" Burstein shouts, animatedly.

The original production of Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, based on the work "Tevye and His Daughters" by Sholem Aleichem. The musical became the longest-running Broadway show of all time, a record it held for 10 years. Original investors who were concerned that the show might be "too Jewish" to succeed, made a fortune.

This will mark the musical's fifth Broadway revival, and this time, the show is opening in what could be considered the most diverse season in the Great White Way's history. The show once considered "too Jewish" will be going up alongside Allegiance (a new musical about Japanese internment camps), Shuffle Along (a new musical that tells the story of the first all-black Broadway musical written by African Americans) and the already history-making Hamilton, which features black and Hispanic actors telling the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. The legacy of Fiddler on the Roof is not hard to detect: The show laid new groundwork for the American musical theatre, with its treatment of actual history and a specific minority culture. "Isn't it wonderful how Broadway can represent all kinds of people?" Burstein asks, when considering the diversity of the season. "Isn't it amazing how Broadway can show the world that all of these different cultures can live together, on the stage and also in life?" Expressing this sentiment, Burstein is both calm and effusive, a juxtaposition of traits that he consistently possesses.

Danny Burstein and Jane Archibald in <i>Die Fledermaus</i>
Danny Burstein and Jane Archibald in Die Fledermaus Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Having played a remarkable array of different nationalities on Broadway — from German (The Snow Geese, Cabaret) to Spanish (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) to Russian (The Seagull) — Burstein is known for his versatility, and his ability to avoid cultural stereotypes altogether.

In this case, the nationality and culture of Fiddler do have a place in Burstein's own ancestry. He has Jewish family on both sides, with Sephardic Jewish ancestors from Spain having come to New York by way of Costa Rica and Jewish ancestors from Russia who were amethyst miners. Growing up, the Burstein family embraced all religions and cultures that they were a part of. "We sometimes had Passover, and we often had Christmas," Burstein remembers. "More than anything, my parents raised me with a strong set of moral values, which actually, were very Jewish: working hard, being honest, giving back, loving your family. If that's not Jewish, I don't know what is."

In addition to relating to Tevye's moral viewpoint, he also relates to him as a father. Burstein has two sons, Alexander and Zachary. "There's nothing more exciting than children. When my oldest son was born, I couldn't believe all of the love I had. I thought I knew what love was, but suddenly there was this endless reservoir, all for this little person in my arms. And that doubled when my second son came along. Everything that happens to your kids, good or bad, happens to you too. I've cheered my sons on through the good, and suffered with them through the bad. I'm looking forward to exploring that with five daughters, which I'm told is even more difficult!"

Danny Burstein and Mary-Louise Parker in <i>The Snow Geese</i>
Danny Burstein and Mary-Louise Parker in The Snow Geese Photo by Joan Marcus

"If I Were A Rich Man" is the part of the production that Burstein is most looking forward to performing night after night. After singing the iconic number at a group sales event in Branson, MO, an Armenian woman who had never heard the song before — and had never seen Fiddler on the Roof — approached him and told him how moved she was, to hear this song she felt was about her family.

As much as he has always admired Fiddler, Burstein swears that he never pictured playing Tevye; he doesn't think about dream jobs. He has always just taken it as it comes. "In my career, I've gone up the ladder one rung at a time, very happily. I savor the small stuff and treasure each collaboration. When I started out as a kid, at the High School of Performing Arts, I thought: God, if I could actually do this for a living, that would be amazing. But I also want a wife and kids and a house and a car — the things I'd be more likely to have if I was an accountant. If I can have that, and the respect of my peers, I'll know I've made it. And I don't know about the respect of my peers, but I've got the other things, and I'm lucky — wow, that's very Jewish, too, isn't it?"

Throughout our chat, Burstein finds himself characterizing some of his feelings and thoughts — and mine — as Jewish. I make sure my recorder is still working at one point, and he remarks, "Please, I understand. I'm Jewish — I worry about everything."

He also constantly recognizes the commonalities in Fiddler's story points. "It's not just a Jewish show — it's a universal show. Fiddler on the Roof has so many themes that people of all walks of life go through: tradition, love, loss, struggle, prejudice, bigotry, family. The reason the show is a masterpiece is because it connects with so many different people." It's his deep understanding of these commonalities that make Burstein a natural to sweep from one culture to another in his Broadway roles.

Seth Numrich, Danny Burstein and Danny Mastrogiorgio in <i>Golden Boy</i>
Seth Numrich, Danny Burstein and Danny Mastrogiorgio in Golden Boy Photo by Paul Kolnik

His thoughtful nature and remarkable skill have granted him widespread respect not just amongst his peers but amongst both older and younger generations of theatre artists. He imparts wisdom as one imagines Tevye might, if he were transplanted into the wild world of 2015 New York City.

"Everybody struggles. Everybody goes through hard times. It's an unforgiving business in a myriad of ways. But having said that, if it's what you want, then you'll do it. A high school teacher of mine, Jerry Eskow, once told me: 'Everyone gets their shot. It's whether you're prepared for it when that shot comes along.' My advice is to be prepared. Do the work, and know your stuff. Say yes to a lot of things early on, and be ready. Everybody's path is different. There is no right or wrong way to be in this business. Sometimes you hit it right off the bat, and sometimes it takes a long time. Just stay at it."

Truly without ego, Burstein credits many of his teachers and mentors with instilling different valuable lessons in him. One of his earliest breaks was as an ensemble member with Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre, where he learned the importance of listening in acting. Barely a minute goes by without him naming someone who influenced, inspired or taught him. His parents are both teachers, which he praises as the world's most noble profession. He characterizes himself as quiet fire, an introvert, someone always interested in learning from others.

"I love being that union guy, that guy who goes to work every day. I love walking into the theatre, and seeing all of my friends, saying hi to the doorman and stagehands and stage managers. It's exciting to me: the day to day work. I never get bored during a run; I love trying to find new things to make the show better and richer and deeper," he confides, accidentally paraphrasing his hero Sondheim. "Going to work means a lot to me. I guess it's about family, more than anything — and belonging — and making my own little shtetl each time."

Danny Bustein and Sarah Paulson in <i>Talley's Folly</i>
Danny Bustein and Sarah Paulson in Talley's Folly Photo by Joan Marcus

"It's really a lovely pat on the back that they decided to go with me for Tevye," he adds. "A nobody, instead of a TV star or movie star." As we part, he decides that he's going to walk two blocks south on Broadway, to look at the Fiddler on the Roof marquee, which bears his likeness. He's only passed it once before, and decorative signage been up for weeks while the theatre sits empty, waiting for the newest Broadway production of Fiddler to move in.

"If you ask me what my definition of success in this business is, I'd say: Are you still here? It's about perseverance. If you're still here, doing it, then you're a success. You've made it." He smiles — a quiet, fulfilled grin — and turns to walk down Broadway.

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