The first time Danny Arnold saw “Fiddler on the Roof” was as a middle schooler in Succasunna, New Jersey. His older brother Adam was one of the Russian soloists in a high school production.
“I became hooked on the show and always wanted to do it from that point on,” he said, “and saw each revival that came to New York City.”
That included the 2016 Broadway production directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Hofesh Schechter.
He was struck, in particular, by Danny Burstein, the actor who played Tevye. The character is usually played as larger than life. That vision of producer Harold Prince was realized by Zero Mostel, who originated the role in the 1964 production directed by Jerome Robbins.
“(Burstein) was such a different Tevye,” Arnold said. “That resonated with me. He brought more heart, and was more down to earth than over the top. He’s a singer and a lot of times Tevye is not a singer, so that was new and interesting too.”
Arnold, who’d spent several post-college years as an elementary school teacher, never imagined being part of that production.
But last year, after an audition and several callbacks, he was cast as an ensemble player and Tevye’s understudy in the North American touring company of the show. It will be in Milwaukee from Feb. 12-17 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
Tevye is played by Israeli actor and visual artist Yehezkel Lazarov, whose credits include “Waltz with Bashir,” which won the 2008 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Some understudies learn they could be asked to step in on short notice when rehearsals begin. Arnold had been given Tevye’s lines during the third or fourth callback and at the final two, asked to sing “If I Were a Rich Man.”
He got the ensemble part and, at the same time was notified of his understudy status.
Many understudies never have to step into a role for which they’ve prepared and have to be ready to step into at a moment’s notice.
Arnold is not one of them.
“My first time going on as Tevye was an emergency,” he said. “We were in Pittsburgh and (Lazarov) started the show and realized he was not going to be able to get through it vocally so backstage I was told, ‘Get dressed, you’re going in.’”
Onstage, Tevye’s daughters were performing “Matchmaker.” Tevye is onstage immediately after. That was as much time as he had to get into costume, makeup and mentally prepare.
“It was the best thing,” he said, “because I didn’t have time to think about it. It is probably the most exciting, thrilling, nerve-wracking thing that’s ever happened to me and maybe ever will.”
The following day, Sunday, Arnold performed two more shows as Tevye.
“And then I felt like I could do it anytime,” he said, “because I had three performances under my belt.”
At the time of this interview, Dec. 19, Arnold had just returned to his usual role after two weeks as Tevye. Lazarov had been in Israel, and it was the morning after his first performance back as an ensemble cast member.
“It was great,” Arnold said, “because when I’m in the ensemble I get to do different things with different people.”