#BehindtheCurtain: Get to Know Matthew Henerson

 In Blog, San Diego Broadway Shows

SDMT’s production of Fiddler on the Roof has officially opened, and audiences have already fallen in love with the incredible characters who make up the tiny village of Anatevka. Not the least of which is our production’s main protagonist, Tevye, who is played by Matthew Henerson. For our Behind-the-Curtain blogs, we normally ask our performers a list of questions ranging from what got you into theatre to what’s your favorite part about this musical. If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof, you know that Tevye always has a story or life lesson ready to go to respond to any situation. So in true Tevye fashion, Matthew responded to our simple questions with a beautifully written blog that we can’t wait to share with you all. Matthew draws on his years of professional experience and fully embodies all of the love, patience, and determination of Tevye in his performance. Watching him lead his family through the tumultuous events of this show brings a tear to every eye. To get to know Matthew a little more, keep reading below, and then make sure you get your tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof running from now until March 10th on the SDMT Stage!


Photo by Ken Jacques


Matthew Henerson here, playing Tevye in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, and I’ve been acting professionally for thirty-some-odd years. A number of factors influenced my decision to become an actor: some lofty, and some not so much. To begin with, I attended an all-boys high school. Doing plays at the local all-girls schools was–and this will come as a surprise to nobody–a good way to meet girls. Some of my luckier classmates were even required–required, forsooth!–to kiss their co-stars. They had to do it! It said so in the script. I was never so lucky. My casting leaned toward the middle aged, even back then: Sir Toby in Twelfth Night, Professor Behr in Little Women, Fiorello La Guardia in Fiorello!, Joe Keller in All My Sons, like that; fathers, philosophers, drunkards, thugs, politicians, clowns, criminals, but never lovers. More about that later.

Then there was a family tradition. My parents were devoted theatre-goers. Dad was a television writer, and Mom was an English teacher turned educational designer. We lived in Los Angeles, and every summer we’d take a week-long vacation to San Diego. My brother and I would go to Sea World, and the zoo, and my folks would leave us with a sitter three nights a week, and go to see Shakespeare at the Globe. They’d been coming since before we were born. They’d seen Morris Carnovsky as Shylock, Victor Buono as Falstaff, John Voight as Romeo and Ariel, David Ogden Stiers as Lear, and then one summer, they brought my brother, Evan, and I to see Comedy of Errors and Macbeth.

Game over. Comedy with the hijinks, dirty jokes and pratfalls, and especially Macbeth with the sword fights and the severed heads and the witches: we didn’t know it at the time, but we were doomed. We couldn’t resist. I became an actor, and Evan became the theatre critic for the LA Daily News, back when newspapers still had designated theatre critics. He still reviews occasionally for Broadway World, and a few other websites, but never anything I’m in. He’s a scrupulously honest man. Always has been.

So. When Eli Wood, SDMT’s multi-talented Marketing and PR Director sent out the prompts for this post, the first question asked: “what inspired you to get into musical theatre?” As it happens my path to the profession didn’t come by way of musical theatre. It might well have. My folks loved musicals as much as Shakespeare. On the way to school we were as likely to hear a tape–yeah, cassette tapes; Google ‘em, if you’re not into antiques–of Guys and Dolls or Call Me Madam, as we were to listen to the radio. Dad even thought about moving to New York to write musicals until he took a Story Editor job on Lassie, which turned out to mean a life in Los Angeles, and a long career in television. During college, I thought about becoming a lawyer, an English professor, even a rabbi. I hadn’t majored in theatre, but I had done six plays a year in venues ranging from community centers to dining halls to squash courts. Lawyer? Rabbi? Who was I kidding?

So I came out of school all ready to make my Broadway, or at least my La Jolla Playhouse, debut. The problem was that I was short, heavyset, and balding, and completely unaware of the difference between what I thought I could play (everything), and what I was likely to be hired to play (at that point, not much). This conundrum harkened back to all that middle-aged casting I’d received in high school (and college.) Turned out I was a character actor; a phrase which can be tricky to define, but here are a few examples of how it’s used. Casting director’s adage: “Everyone’s character over 35.” Or, from an online casting breakdown: “Male: 40 – 60. Could range from very handsome to extreme character.” So…Jason Alexander or Ron Pearlman, but emphatically not George Clooney or Brad Pitt. It took me a while to realize it, but from a professional point of view, I’d emerged from the womb aged between forty and sixty. I dreamed of playing Romeo, but I was too old for the part by the time I was fourteen.

Still, there was an upside. Being a character actor is actually a gift that keeps on giving. You become more castable the older you get (up to a point), and while you may miss out on Romeo, John Proctor or Billy Flynn, you might stumble across Macbeth, or Galileo (in the Brecht play), or Teyve, if you’re lucky. The problem is navigating your twenties and thirties. Nobody wants you in the two, three, and four-handers about love, sex, loss and discovery. No, if you’re going to survive, never mind make what we in the theatre laughingly call a living, you’re going to have to do it in big-cast productions: most often musicals or Shakespeare.

It might have been musicals for me. Didn’t turn out that way, but it might have. I could sing, or at least carry a tune, and I did find my way into several musicals as a young man, shoehorned in between multiple Hamlets and Winter’s Tales and what not. Two productions of Threepenny Opera, if you please: one as Tiger Brown, and one as the Street Singer, Marcellus in The Music Man, the Governor/Innkeeper in Man of La Mancha, Lieutenant Harbison–for my sins–in South Pacific, and Lazar Wolf in a Summer Stock production of Fiddler on the Roof at the ripe old age of 30.

It’s remarkable how much your first experience of a play can color your perception of it. That first production of Fiddler was directed and choreographed by a husband and wife team who’d been Broadway chorus folks back in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Their self-imposed mission was to recreate, as closely as possible, the Broadway experience in a large cement amphitheater in a park in Oakland. I remember rehearsing the scene in the tavern just before “To Life!” I’d decided that Lazar was restless waiting for Tevye, and during an initial blocking rehearsal, I stood up, and began to pace, replying to Mordcha’s questions over my shoulder. The husband (directing) screamed: “Whaddya think you’re doing? Sit on the bench!”

Me (hesitantly): “I just thought, you know, that my guy might be a little fidgety while he’s waiting to find out if he’s going to be allowed to marry…”

Director: “Granger didn’t pace on Broadway! Sit on the bench!”

I sat on the bench.

My memories of that production are mostly unsatisfactory. The Tevye was an excellent actor/singer, but he didn’t have much yiddishkeit, and neither did the rest of the company. The Rabbi and I were the only two Jews in the cast, and I found something a little off-putting about the broad, quasi-Brooklyn accents several members of the company adopted to “sound Jewish.” I came away with an impression of Fiddler on the Roof as a sort of a smug piece, written by successful assimilated American Jews to exploit and poke fun at the provincialism of their grandparents. I was wrong, but I wouldn’t find out how wrong I was until the next time I did the play, eleven years later.

In fact, there is nothing smug or small about Fiddler on the Roof. It’s an absolute barn-burner; one of the most beautiful, durable and consistently successful plays ever written. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you can screw it up, but you really have to work at it. Provided most of your cast can do a passable imitation of humanity, carry a tune, and–best case scenario–a few of them can dance, you’ve got the makings of a wonderful night at the theater. The only other thing you need, particularly in an American production, is yiddishkeit.

Yiddishkeit: literally Jewishness: the quality of being Jewish. But of course we’re talking about actors in a play, so perhaps we should stretch the definition a little: something like being or seeming Jewish. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to duck the complex and often volatile debate currently raging about identity in the arts. (Is it appropriate for a non-Queer actor to play a Queer role? Should a physically able actor be allowed to play, for example, Richard III? Or, and I don’t know if this has come up yet: should the entire cast of a production of Fiddler on the Roof–baiting, perhaps, the Constable–be Jewish?) I will say that I have yet to be in an all-Jewish production of Fiddler, that the last-but-one Tevye on Broadway, Alfred Molina, was not Jewish, and that in the production which opened my eyes to the magnificence and magic of Fiddler, I was the only Jew. At the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2008, we didn’t have many Yids, but we had plenty of yiddishkeit.

At the time, I didn’t think to wonder why a theatre which had programmed Fiddler on the Roof as part of a six-show summer season could have cast so few Jews. And there were a couple of reasons the question didn’t occur to me. First and foremost, the 2008 USF summer company was as talented, accomplished and exciting a group of actors as I have ever worked with. And second of all, at some point the company was shown some of the paperwork–spreadsheets, schedules, diagrams, glyphs, runes, alchemical ephemera, and who knows what all else–involved in casting sixty-one actors in six plays, all set to open in the same week. I remember thinking that it was probably easier to plan the invasion of Normandy. Nevertheless, the fact remained that of the thirty-one actors cast in USF’s production of Fiddler, only one–me, playing Tevye for the first time–was Jewish. Which left the production staff with a problem: how to create a consistent, creditable Jewish shtetl with an almost exclusively non-Jewish company; or put another way, how to teach yiddishkeit.

Their solution was linguistic, which makes sense. Theatre is a primarily aural medium. You experience it most vividly through your ears. (I spent a year on tour with a musical adaptation of the movie Flashdance, and we played the big touring houses in cities all over the country: venues with three thousand, four thousand, and in the case of Kansa City’s Starlight Theater, nearly eight thousand seats. Unless you’re sitting in the first twenty rows–or unless you thought to bring a telescope–you can’t possibly see much in the way of a nuanced performance. But. Those places all have state of the art sound systems, so your ears compensate for what your eyes miss. And you can spend the evening immersed in what makes theatre magical: language and music.) So the Utah Shakespeare Festival brought in a dialect coach, a brilliant, talented, and above all a patient man, whose job was to make us all sound, not like Zero Mostel or Fran Drescher, but like native Yiddish speakers, as opposed to the Russians, whom he taught to sound like native Russian speakers. The goal was heavily accented but comprehensible English, and he got us there: v’s for w’s, pure European eh’s and oh’s, wide ah’s, ee for short i’s. Teyve’s line to his youngest daughters, “Would you like to take lessons from him?” became “Vould you lah-eek to teh-eek leh-sahns frahm heem?” It looks a little silly on the page, but it worked like gangbusters on the stage, not least because it made us all sound like a community. It created Anatevka, and Anatevka is every bit as much a character in Fiddler on the Roof, as Tevye, Golde or Motel, albeit with fewer lines.

As we rehearsed it, and especially as we performed it, I began to understand the power of the piece. These people are funny and touching, and infuriating not because they’re vaudevillian caricatures, but because they’re human. They are poor, they work hard, and they take their pleasures where they can find them: in bickering, in inventing colorful curses for their political overlords, in drink when they can afford it, and in gossip when they can’t. I began to hear echoes of my Grandmother in Shaindel’s spirited defense of her son, and of my Great Aunt in Golde’s patient dismissal of Tevye’s posturing. I began to see traces of Hodel and Chavah in my own then-eight-year-old daughter’s cheerful curiosity. I even began to wonder if perhaps I sounded a little like my own Great Grandfather; a man I’d never met, but a man who’d left what is now Belarus at about the same time as Tevye’s family, and for much the same reason.

I also began to understand the play’s popularity with non-Jewish populations, particularly immigrant populations, conquered populations, homeless populations; people forced to travel, to adapt to new political circumstances, people subject to political persecution. And I began to admire the courage of such people; people who could shout, as Tevye and his companions do, in the most upbeat song in the musical: “And if our good fortune never comes, here’s to whatever comes! Drink l’chaim, to life!” It’s heroism, but a different kind of heroism: comic, rather than tragic, and comic in a much older sense of the word. Before comedy was about humor, it was about continuation, procreation, about choosing an uncertain life as opposed to a glorious death. It’s a choice the Jewish people have been making for milenia, and it’s a choice that’s at the heart of Fiddler on the Roof. Understand that, and you’re a fair few steps along the road to yiddishkeit. Understand that, and you’ll understand why Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof has become much more than just a favorite role for me, it’s become mazel, and a mitzvah.

I know, I know. Look ‘em up.

Many thanks,

Matthew Henerson

Photo by Ken Jacques

Photo by Ken Jacques



Fiddler on the Roof Creative Team:
Director: Omri Schein
Choreographer: Jill Gorrie Rovatsos
Music Director: Richard Dueñez Morrison


CLICK HERE to buy tickets!

Photo by Ken Jacques


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