Michael Bernardi recently made history when he stepped into the role of Tevye, a character that his late father, Herschel Bernardi, made famous nearly 50 years ago in Fiddler on the Roof. On most nights he can be seen serving up drinks as the surly bartender, Mordcha in the current Broadway production which ends its run on December 31, 2016.
You are currently in Fiddler on the Roof– how is that going?
It’s fantastic. I mean, we are coming toward its close so it’s kind of like the last week of camp. Everyone is very nostalgic and sentimental, but the truth is Fiddler on the Roof, you have to fight against the sentimentality because it really pulls the heartstrings, but if there was ever a show that was created for closing, it was Fiddler on the Roof. So you know, people are emotional.
What are you going to miss most about the show?
First thing that pops up is basically the daily visceral reminders of what life is all about. Every day I go to the theater and whatever I am going through, or life is presenting, I always seem to find a place to ground myself and to remember what is important. And just thinking about my family and my ancestors and what it is to be alive and what it is to embrace life and so you can’t really perform this show without having those reminders pop in and kind of cleanse yourself. I will be missing my daily spiritual cleanse.
Your father, Herschel Bernardi was famous for playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. What was it like your first time stepping into that role?
Like jumping out of an airplane. It was the greatest acting lesson I ever had because as much as me playing Tevye and wearing the same boots as my father wore when he played Tevye, we are both doing it on a Broadway stage. As much meaning was packed into that and as fulfilling – life‑fulfilling of a moment as it was, ultimately, the most important thing that needed my focus was telling the story. So I found myself in those moments just feeling at times overwhelmed by how powerful it felt to be on a Broadway stage and be wearing those boots and be shaking and singing “Rich Man” doing my Biddy‑bums.
I found myself having to let all of that go and just trust that that was there because the truth is my job is to be a milkman with five daughters and not to tell the story of Michael Bernardi and you know, the powerful genetics that happened to be on my father’s side – but to tell the story of Fiddler on the Roof and I found a lot of freedom in that.
It’s pretty cool that you got to take on the same role that your dad did years ago.
Yes. I would say so. You know, it’s interesting. I went through so many emotions doing that. Especially having not known my father since he passed away when I was so young. I found myself looking to people to just get some advice or to connect with, because it felt like a rare situation to be in and I found that not a lot of people really know what it is to be in a situation like that. And so it made it very personal and at times I felt a little lonely in it as well. But in a really beautiful way, it’s the greatest –
It’s the circle of life.
Circle of life. No question. You know, The Lion King definitely was in the back of my head, but the idea of that connecting with my father, that’s something that’s always been an emptiness in my life and I really do believe that playing the role of Tevye really helped me connect to my father in the most powerful way that I am ever going to get and so it was truly healing in a lot of ways. My father, his identity as a person was very much sharpened on the stone that is Tevye and so I was able to learn about his identity and learn about my own identity by sharpening myself on that same stone.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career acting?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t an actor. I don’t remember it being a choice. I wasn’t pushed to do it or anything like that. I remember I had memorized all of Fozzy the Bear’s jokes from VHS cassettes that I would watch over and over again. I would watch Robin Williams perform stand‑up comedy on another VHS cassette. I had watched these two videos over and over again so I guess it’s just something like, “oh, that’s what people do. That looks fun. That’s what I will do.” We had Passover dinners and I was holding court and telling Fozzy the Bear jokes at like four years old and running into the other room crying when I couldn’t remember a punchline and remembering it and coming back with a fixed smile and making everybody laugh. And the truth is that’s basically been my artistic process since then.
It’s just something that I do and I think the closest thing I ever came to a choice about it was really after graduating acting school and getting into the nitty‑gritty of auditioning and the rejections. You have to ask yourself, “okay, what am I really doing here” and in those moments I truly decided – and the truth is in that in my 20s it was something that I did but I think on some level I was hiding from certain opportunities just because I thought that I wasn’t ready. We all have our insecurities and there was a moment before I turned 30 where I just said, “you know what? Okay. I get it. I decide to be an actor.” It’s not just something that I have done or that I love but something that I decide to do actively, professionally and making that decision, life immediately changed. So you know, things started to happen.
Who inspired you when you were growing up?
Let me think. I mean, I love Mandy Patinkin. I loved Robin Williams. He basically did it all. Robin Williams is my hero and you know what? As I really think about it, it was after Robin Williams passed away when I found myself having to reapply myself and give myself another reason to keep going. I think it was around that time where I truly made the decision. A part of me is always “okay, well, Robin is around and one day I will meet Robin.” That’s something to push for. And when he was gone, it just took the wind right out of everybody, but it forced me to answer some hard questions and to make that decision to really move forward.
I hear that. What’s your favorite movie that he was in?
Oh, that’s a good one. Easy. The Fisher King.
In Fiddler on the Roof, you play Mordcha the bartender every night. What’s your favorite part about that role?
That’s a great question. Well, I mean, I feel like what’s great about the bartender is that he can be really surly and pretty deadpan. And so what’s wonderful is that no matter how exhausted I am feeling, I can really just put it right into the character and sometimes actually, if I am more exhausted and really beat to hell, it all gets better laughs. I got to find the inner shtetl misery.
What’s your favorite number in the show?
Oh, it’s “To Life”. It’s just so much fun. What I love about it, especially when I am playing Mordcha is just this – no matter how tired or surly or whatever, even the character, even myself bursts out into total joy and any song that’s about total joy, it’s irresistible.
Fiddler is a classic show that talks so much about tradition, yet it still seems to address relevant issues that we face today. What would you take away from this experience?
The existence of Fiddler itself is an example of the survival of culture despite all odds.
What inspires me is to continue the culture, to constantly keep that flame lit of the Jewish culture and all cultures that are threatened by hate. So no matter how bad it seems, or how restrictive it may feel at times, that just as long as I am striving towards the survival of the artistic output of the Jewish culture, then I believe that it will survive eternally.
Yes, well, the Jews will survive. They have been surviving for years.
That’s right. Exactly, and Fiddler itself is an example of that and is an inspiration.
If you were a rich man, what would you do with your money?
Do a production of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and cast myself. I don’t know. I mean if I were a rich man, what would I do? A real rich man.
You know, what’s interesting is that the original song was called “If I Were A Rothschild.” Well, it wasn’t actually a song. It was a poem that was written by Sholom Aleichem. So “If I Were A Rich Man” is based on a poem or something that Sholom Aleichem wrote called “If I Were A Rothschild.” “If I Were A Rich Man,” it’s a little more for an American sensibility in the sense that Tevye would have this big tall house and he would have servants and he would have these times of luxury and just to have time for himself. And “If I Were A Rothschild,” it’s all about how he would change the world for better and give lots of money to the people that are poor and make sure that everyone is fed. So it’s interesting, the differences in it and I guess I don’t know if I were really, really, really rich, I would probably do everything that I could to help people that are not doing so well. Of course if I can have my own personal basketball court when I do that, then fantastic, but other than that, I really do believe that there is no real wealth unless you have the wealth of all. I mean, I know I sound like Gandhi, but I really do believe that in my life experience when people get along, life is better.
If you could switch places with anyone on Broadway right now, who would it be?
Oh, boy. Interesting. Danny Burstein. Danny Burstein, but only once in awhile because he has got a pretty strenuous job. So I would like to come in every few months and take his job which I already do, which is wonderful. I would like to replace – you know, it’s me. I’m happy where I am.
What’s your favorite musical of all time?
Favorite musical of all time, I mean, come on. It’s Fiddler. There is no question.
Go‑to karaoke song?
House of the Rising Sun.
The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell.
Favorite thing about NYC?
Bagels and lox everywhere.
All‑time favorite thing about being on Broadway?
There is a lot of things. The daily meeting of myself. And meaning that it’s the daily meeting of myself and the audience. You can’t lie to the audience. And the audience will always catch you and so it’s just a wonderful thing – the daily exposure to the unblinking eye of the audience.
Transcribed by Yaffi / Interview by Joy