NEW YORK (AP) — The first time Danny Burstein performed the song "If I Were a Rich Man" in public, he left one woman in tears.
It was in front of 6,000 people at a group sales meeting in Orlando, Florida. The song is a poor Jewish milkman's fantasy of what material comforts wealth would bring him.
When Burstein was finished, a security guard in a red jacket who looked close to 70 came up. She said she was Syrian and she wanted to know how Burstein had gotten into her head.
"She said, 'How did you know? It's like you're describing my family. You started singing and I started crying,'" he said.
That a song could cross such a gulf in history and nationality is largely due to the majesty of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" but also to the singer, a humble Broadway veteran whose hard work and decency seems always to shine through.
Burstein at 51 is taking his biggest leap yet on Broadway — playing the classic role made famous by Zero Mostel, Topol and Theodore Bikel. Previews start Friday.
"People keep saying to me, 'How are you going to make your Tevye different? What's he going to do?' The only thing I can do is to be as honest about it as possible, to be as real about it as possible and to walk into the room with an open heart."
The Tony Award-winning musical about a Jewish milkman from the Ukrainian village of Anatevka is based on stories by Sholom Aleichem. Tevye, a poor Orthodox Jew with five rebellious daughters, is at its heart.
The original production in 1964 starred Mostel and had an almost eight-year run, offering the world such stunning songs as "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Matchmaker, Matchmaker."
This revival marks Burstein's 16th Broadway show and comes in his 32nd year as an acting professional, earning five Tony nominations. He was in the original casts of "Titanic" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" and the recent revivals of "South Pacific," ''Cabaret" and "Follies."
While he may not be too well known outside of New York, Burstein is known as the consummate stage pro, at home in comedy, drama or musical.
"I'm one of those union guys who likes to go to work every day. I love my job. I love high-fiving the doorman when I walk in," said the five-time Tony nominee.
"I'm not somebody who is in a TV show who'll bring in a lot of tickets. But I think I could be somebody who does a really good job."
Someone who agrees is Sheldon Harnick, the Tony winner who wrote the lyrics for "Fiddler on the Roof." Harnick says Burstein's naturalism is perfect for Tevye: "That's the hallmark of his performance — reality and honesty."
To get ready for the part, Burstein hit the gym and has grown a lush beard. ("They love me in Brooklyn," he jokes.) He and director Bartlett Sher have teased out a fresh take on Tevye's relationship with God, with whom he is constantly in conversation.
"What if his relationship with God was less subservient and more on an equal basis?" Burstein asked. "I'd like him to get pissed off at God and let Him know about it. Like, 'Really? You did this to us?'"
Burstein, who has Jewish ancestry on both sides of his family, grew up listening to the original cast recording of "Fiddler on the Roof." He was in a community theater production at 16 and in a summer stock production with Bikel when he was 21.
"I don't deny all the ghosts that are with me from the past, but what I hope to do is take them with me and honor them," he said.
Burstein is married to actress Rebecca Luker, whose starring roles on Broadway include "Mary Poppins," ''Nine" and "The Music Man." They have two grown sons, Alex and Zach.
Burstein only recently ended a year-run in "Cabaret" and is now preparing for another long run, but this time as the show's leader.
That means few nights out, a steady diet of bland food, soups and salads, and his face in a steam machine all winter to protect his voice. He thinks it's worth it.
"It's a great, great role. I never thought I would ever play the role but when it was offered to me, I knew I couldn't turn it down," he said. "It's a lovely pat on the back and I'm as shocked as you are."