‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Endures in Baltimore

Eric Berey (Provided)

When the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” pauses for a six-day stint at the Hippodrome Theatre this week, two young Baltimore natives — best friends and graduates of Baltimore County’s arts magnet high school, George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology — will be in the ensemble.

Eric Berey and Derek Ege graduated in Carver’s class of 2008 with majors in theater and dance, respectively. Berey, who grew up in Reisterstown, loved acting but grew to love dance just as well.

“I started doing dance junior year at Carver,” he said. And although he was still acting, he didn’t combine these interests in musical theater. “I wasn’t a big singer. Now here I am in this musical.”

Berey first saw the musical, which tells the story of a father trying to instill Judaism in his five daughters during czarist Russia, on Broadway with his parents. The original production, which opened in 1964, was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances and won the 1965 Tony Award for Best Musical, in addition to eight other Tony Awards that year.

“I knew in this new creation of it, the choreography was set by Hofesh Shechter. He’s Israeli, and I was a big fan of him and his work,” said Berey. “When I heard a few years later they’re going to do a tour of this, I was really eager to get into an audition, so my friend helped me.”

The Baltimore run of the show continues this weekend with a show Friday night, two Saturday and two Sunday. Berey, an ensemble member, plays Yussel, the town’s hatmaker, and the town beggar.

Berey’s audition pressed the accelerator on his life and career. “Within the week, I heard I was offered something. Then, within the next few weeks, I started rehearsals and I had to change my whole life to go on tour.”

The nine-month tour keeps him on the road and out of his Brooklyn apartment until July.

“We have July off, then a few more shows in August,” he said.

His mother, Anne Berey, who belongs to Chizuk Amuno Congregation, is beyond excited.

“I can’t even tell you,” he laughed. “She called today and was trying to figure out my schedule and I’m like, ‘Mom, I haven’t even gotten any information yet!’”

His parents came to the opening in Philadelphia, “which was really awesome. They’re coming so many times in Baltimore. It’s almost as big a deal for them as it is for me because they supported me my whole life doing theater and dance and the arts.”

“I feel very connected to the show being Jewish, so I feel really honored to be able to bring it home,” Berey said. “I love the themes that come out of it: community, tradition and change, too. Family and love. My bubbe sang ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ to my father at his bar mitzvah, so it’s kind of like a full-circle moment for me, to get to perform this for her. I’m going to start crying when I think about it.”

He’s also excited to bring the show to multiple generations in the audience. “Maybe they haven’t seen ‘Fiddler’ before or maybe they’ve grown up seeing it their whole lives, but I can’t tell you how much this means to me to be a part of this as a Jewish person, keeping the story alive.”

And not just the story, but the score as well. “There’s not just one song everyone knows — it’s the whole production. It’s all the songs.”

Berey got to meet Fiddler’s lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, who is now 94 years old and still working. “He came to one of our previews! It was amazing to meet him,” Berey said.

In fact, Baltimoreans may get a glimpse of the iconic lyricist in the audience. Still very involved with the production, Harnick says he intends to see as many of the shows as his schedule allows.

Sheldon Harnick (Provided)

His schedule, however, is more packed than that of most nonagenarians. Most recently, he and his wife of 53 years, Margery Harnick, published their second book together, “Koi: A Modern Folktale.” His wife took all the photographs and he wrote all the poetry in Haiku format.

Harnick began his storied career, as fate would have it, as a fiddler. A violin major at Northwestern University in Chicago, he’d always been moved by the theater and went to New York City with the intention of becoming a lyricist.

“I thought I could contribute,” he said. But he had a backup plan. “If I don’t make it as a lyricist, I thought maybe I can make it as a violinist in a symphony.”

He didn’t need to employ his Plan B, as his long and still-active career as a lyricist won him multiple awards, including a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Harnick is now a Tony Award voter and loves going to the theater with Margery, but “not just musicals,” he said. “We love to see plays.”

Through “Fiddler’s” many incarnations on Broadway, not a single word of the lyrics has changed. “We had a director who was wonderful,” Harnick remembered. By the time the show opened, “the director and artistic staff felt every word and note was where it needed to be, and we haven’t changed a word since.”

More than 50 years of sunrises and sunsets have burnished Harnick’s lyrics with a patina of age and tradition, yet his words still shine with contemporary relevance, like a long-forgotten penny rubbed shiny by the friction in a pants pocket.

“Unfortunately, with what happened last week [in Pittsburgh], it’s more relevant than ever,” Harnick said of the show. He hopes this latest tour of “Fiddler” “does its bit [to] fight anti-Semitism” and gives new audiences an “understanding of what a difficult time Jews had in Ukraine, and even coming to America.”

Berey expresses a similar sentiment, saying “Fiddler” “has these connections to the Holocaust, and to persecution. I just think it’s so important to remind people that these things have happened in the past and they could happen in the future.”

Berey calls it a privilege to join the next chapter in “Fiddler’s” long tradition. “It’s so, so important to keep this story alive.”

For tickets and more information, visit baltimore.broadway.com/shows/fiddler-roof.

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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