Danny Burstein Steps Into Tevye’s Shoes Again

by Pat Launer July 27, 2017


dannyburstein_lauramarieduncan1If you’re going to feature songs from “Fiddler on the Roof,” why not go for the gold and get the guy who wowed Broadway audiences last year in his Tony-nominated performance as Tevye? For a very quick run this Bayside Summer Nights series, that’s exactly what the Symphony did. They brought in Danny Burstein. (He also won the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for his acclaimed performance in the latest Broadway re-boot of “Fiddler.”)

Burstein is an enormous talent who’s made his mark as a singer, comic and dramatic actor in 16 Broadway shows (garnering six Tony Award noms), multiple films and tv performances, lending his voice to a number of video games, and even making his opera debut (in a non-singing role in “Die Fledermaus”) at the Metropolitan Opera.

But at heart, he admits, he’s “a Broadway baby.

“It’s home for me,” he says from New York, where he’s playing the hilarious role of Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Public Theatre. He’ll finish that run on August 13, just in time to jet out West to star in the San Diego Symphony’s Salute to Broadway, “To Life: Bock and Harnick on Broadway,” featuring songs from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (August 18-19).

Surprisingly, given all the extroverted, comical characters he’s played, he was, he says, “pretty quiet” as a child. He grew up in New York City. His parents were separated when he was two months old. He was raised by his mother, a Costa Rican painter (Catholic, of Spanish descent), and his stepfather, Henry Burstein (Jewish), a professor of Greek philosophy. He had no formal religious training, but he identifies with his Jewishness. His mother’s family, it turns out, “two generations back, were Sephardic Jews, so it’s definitely in my blood.”

He certainly exudes a Jewish demeanor, and he’s unequivocally a mensch: warm, gracious, charming and humble.

[Fun trivia fact: Danny and I have a personal connection, of sorts. My maiden name is Burstein, but alas, we have no shared relatives.]

“I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid,” Danny confesses, “but my father would give me plays to read. I immediately understood the philosophy and the ideas. From the time I was 10 years old, I loved plays. I loved the dialogue and the family dynamics. That was more exciting to me than anything else.

“When I was 13,” he continues, “I was doing a play in junior high school, and my English teacher suggested that I go to the High School of Performing Arts, whose alumni were superstars like Ben Vereen and Liza Minelli. The year I auditioned, there were more than 4,000 students trying to get in. I was one of only 127 who made the cut. That school experience changed my life.”

Enrolling at age 14, he spent “four amazing years” there, and by 19, he had his Equity card.

“I always had a quick sense of humor,” he says, “but I was very shy. I didn’t blossom till the last six months of high school. It’s funny, because, when I go to reunions, people say, ‘I barely remember you.’ I really enjoyed just being a fly on the wall, learning as much as I could. I definitely wasn’t one of the loud, clique-y, extroverted kids. You know, quiet fire, still waters. I was always the only kid in the room I’d never heard of. But I knew this theater thing was for me.”

When he attended Queens College in New York, he met his mentor, Edward M. Greenberg, who taught musical theater, and was also the executive producer of the MUNY in St. Louis, the largest outdoor musical theater in the country.

“He recognized my talents in freshman year, and invited me to the MUNY, which was an incredibly heady experience.”

Danny spent several summers at the MUNY, and appeared in shows with, among many other big names of the time, John Cullum and Jim Dale.

“The coolest part is that now Jim and John are friends and colleagues. It’s a beautiful thing. I get to work with my heroes. And they’re an inspiration, still trying to make art that matters.”

When it came time for graduate school, Danny chose UC San Diego, “because it was one of the top-rated schools in the country. It was a fantastic experience.”

Ironically, though he didn’t get accepted into the grad programs at NYU or Yale, both schools have since invited him to come back and teach. He’s also taught master classes at UCSD.

“I love San Diego,” he says. “Part of my heart will always be there. It’s a wonderful artistic home. I’m still in touch with people I knew there. Todd Salovey was in my year. I love Todd. I just spoke to him a few months ago.”

Todd remembers Danny as “extremely funny and talented.”

Another reason San Diego is near and dear to him is this is where he met his wife: the beautiful, golden-voiced Rebecca Luker. They first performed together in “Time and Again” at The Old Globe (1996) and started dating when they both appeared in the Barry Manilow musical, “Harmony,” at the La Jolla Playhouse (1997). They have two sons: one produces short films and the other is a musician. Danny’s father, now 80, is still teaching. His mother, 75, is still painting and teaching.

“We’re relentless,” he quips.

Between them, Danny and Rebecca have nine Tony nominations (no wins yet). After his six noms, Danny is neither frustrated nor resentful.

“Just to be invited to the party is an incredible honor. Winning doesn’t change anything. Whether I have the hardware at the end of the night is not what’s important. I just keep working and trying to get better.”

He especially loves the variety of roles he’s gotten to play.

“I’m an actor, and a character actor. A musical actor and a dramatic actor. I just don’t want to be pigeon-holed.”

He’s probably best known as a musical theater whiz. All his Tony nominations have been for musicals: “The Drowsy Chaperone” (2006), “South Pacific” (2008), “Follies” (2012), “Golden Boy” (2013), “Cabaret” (2014) and of course, “Fiddler on the Roof” (2016).

Which brings us back to San Diego.

He’s looking forward to stepping into Tevye’s dusty boots again.

“‘Fiddler’ is one of the great shows and scores. A musical theater masterpiece that spans cultures and generations. And it’s really funny. Playing Tevye was one of the highlights of my career.”

When it first opened in 1964, “Fiddler on the Roof” was the first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances. It won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, score, book, direction and choreography. It spawned five Broadway revivals and a successful film adaptation (1971).

The story (libretto by Joseph Stein) is based on “Tevye and his Daughters” (or “Tevye the Dairyman”), a series of Yiddish tales by Sholem Aleichem, written between 1894 and 1914, about life in a Russian shtetl at the turn of the 20th century. The title was inspired by various paintings by Marc Chagall.

picnicFor the Symphony Summer Nights program, which pays tribute to the brilliant writers of “Fiddler,” composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, Danny will sing excerpts from the show, with a narrative accompaniment that will give an intimate look at how the story was enhanced by the music. He’ll be joined by Broadway musical veteran Leah Horowitz and Tony-nominated actor/singer/dancer/comedian Susan Egan (the original Belle in Broadways’ “Beauty and the Beast”). Handling the chorus will be local and glorious Sacra/Profana. 

The evening’s events are produced, directed and conducted by Rob Fisher, a close friend of Sheldon Harnick who, at age 93, is still actively writing. Harnick was in San Diego three years ago to oversee a staged reading of his newly revised musical, “Rothschild & Sons,” which debuted on Broadway in 1970 as “The Rothschilds.”

The special Symphony Summer Nights program was put together with Sheldon Harnick’s blessing. He’s reportedly thrilled about having an entire night dedicated to his work with Jerry Bock, who died in 2010. It’s the first such tribute to the writing team, which was arguably the most important musical partnership of the 1960s. Their collaborations include “Fiorello!” (1959), “Tenderloin” (1960), “She Loves Me” (1963) and “The Apple Tree” (1966).

“When Rob first called to invite me,” Danny says, “I leaped at the offer. I’d do absolutely anything for Rob. We’ve worked together many times. He’s one of the greatest conductors in the world. He has the energy of a 25 year-old kid; he’s always involved in so many different projects, and he’s so meticulous about every one.”

Rob Fisher is meticulously putting together a rousing evening for San Diego, including singers from the MFA musical theater program at SDSU, a local chorus, and of course, the San Diego Symphony, to highlight the evolution of Bock and Harnick’s work, building up to a crescendo with “Fiddler,” one of the most cherished of all Broadway musicals. The second act will feature Danny Burstein, a beloved performer in his own right, whose portrayal of Tevye was hailed by The New York Times:

“Mr. Burstein unleashes his rich baritone with roof-raising force when Tevye’s emotion is at its height,” wrote Charles Isherwood, “bringing home the character’s indomitable will, often hidden beneath his self-deprecating humor … 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.”

That voice and emotionality return to San Diego for just two nights this month. Maybe it’ll start a “Tradition.”

“To Life: Bock & Harnick on Broadway,” featuring songs from “Fiddler on the Roof” sung by Danny Burstein, is part of the San Diego Symphony’s Bayside Summer Nights – their annual Salute to Broadway – August 18 and 19, at the Marina Park South. Tickets ($26-$98) are available at 619-235-0804; sandiegosymphony.org.

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