A second fiddler no more

A second fiddler no more

Yiddish Tevya Steven Skybell is Tony-nominated for ‘Cabaret’

Steven Skybell is Herr Schultz, and Bebe Neuwirth is Fraulein Schneider in the new “Cabaret” on Broadway. (Marc Brenner)
Steven Skybell is Herr Schultz, and Bebe Neuwirth is Fraulein Schneider in the new “Cabaret” on Broadway. (Marc Brenner)

Newly minted Tony nominee Steven Skybell is living the dream.


I know because I asked him.

Mr. Skybell’s dream started in his hometown — Lubbock, Texas. There were about 100 Jewish families in the community, he said, “and I grew up with a very strong Jewish identity. I think that was because my father’s parents, my grandparents, also lived there. I had many uncles who also lived there.

“I would go to my grandfather’s house every Friday for Shabbas, and while it was not a densely populated Jewish area, it definitely had the feeling of a Jewish home. There was a synagogue in town.”

In fact, he adds, given the small number of Jews in town, “just like the Jewish joke, at one point there were two synagogues.”

Eventually there was only one synagogue, and it was Reform. “In fact, it was only into my college years that I understood that there was such a thing as a Saturday morning Sabbath service,” Mr. Skybell said. “All we had was Friday night services. And we only read from the Torah for bar mitzvahs and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“So I had to, you know, educate myself after the fact. But though it was a Reform upbringing, it was a very, very Jewish upbringing.”

Another important building in his life was the Lubbock Theater Center, which included a children’s theater. He started appearing in plays at the venue “when I was 10 years old, and I never looked back.”

Mr. Skybell, 61, made the right choice. He’s had a successful career, with many TV and film credits. But his greatest triumphs have occurred on the stage, including the last Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (he played Lazar Wolf) and then his multi-award-winning role as Tevya in the Folksbiene production of the play in Yiddish.

He is now appearing as Herr Schultz opposite Bebe Neuwirth’s Fraulein Schneider in the latest incarnation of “Cabaret,” the musical set in a decadent Berlin between the two world wars. It’s an import of a much-lauded London production, starring Eddie Redmayne, that has received a more modest critical reception here.

But one thing that unites the critics is the Schneider-Schultz romance, which is highlighted in this production.

Mr. Skybell hadn’t seen the acclaimed London production. In fact, “I’m more and more embarrassed about this, but I’ve never seen a stage version of ‘Cabaret.’ I saw the film, but of course my character doesn’t even make it into the film. So what I knew from the London production is that the Jewish story was emphasized. It was given space to be more than just a plot point.

“Director Rebecca Freckhall’s vision was to not cut short the Jewish story.”

Joel Grey, who won Tony, Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe awards for his portrayal of the Emcee in the original Broadway version and subsequent Bob Fosse film, “was on the phone constantly with me from the moment he heard I was playing Herr Schultz. He told me it may not be the largest part, but it is kind of the beating heart of the story.”

(Mr. Grey, who directed Mr. Skybell in the Yiddish “Fiddler,” told me: “I wish I could tell you I did a lot of things, but I can’t because he’s the most natural actor I know. I just told him to trust himself. The part was perfect for him.”)

I wondered if he and Ms. Neuwirth, who is also Jewish, had any input into their characters’ development. “I was initially interested in maybe finding more Yiddish to exist in the play, but the director tried to push me away from that. I actually now feel she was 100% correct. Herr Schultz is absolutely assimilated into German society, and there’s very little about him that is Jewish. And I think that’s the point. He is going to get overrun by the Nazi regime, even though he is assimilated.”

There wasn’t much discussion with Bebe either, he said. “She and I have worked together before. We did a production of a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’. She was Titania, and I was Bottom, so we actually had a sex scene back then. I loved working with her. And I think we’re both the type of actors who do not like to over-discuss things. If it feels like it’s working between us, let it just be.

“I do think that because she’s Jewish she brings a real sensitivity to Schneider’s dilemma.”

In “Cabaret,” Fraulein Schneider, an older gentile woman, runs a boarding house and becomes engaged to Herr Schultz, a Jewish tenant — until she is threatened by the Nazis.

“That’s not to say that a non-Jewish person wouldn’t come to the same performance subtleties she has,” he added quickly. “But I personally like that she is Jewish.”

That, of course, raises the issue of Jewface, broached most recently by comedienne Sarah Silverman. Simply, it suggests Jews should play Jews in theatrical productions.

“I have of late been playing Jewish characters,” Mr. Skybell said. “And the thing about Jewish characters for me is that I can draw upon my Jewish DNA. But as actors we want to be able to play things that aren’t in our DNA, to let our imagination lead us.

“I understand this desire for authenticity, but it can be a very slippery slope. Obviously, it’s important for people who are under-represented on the stage to get an opportunity, but do you have to be a parent to play a parent?”

Still, the politics of today lend a special resonance to his performance. “Absolutely. What makes this revival so meaningful is that the events of 2024 are shockingly parallel to some of the things that occurred in 1930. Sadly, the rise of antisemitism, anti-Jewish violence, and violent rhetoric against Jews — I can’t help but engage in that as I depict this Jew from 1930.”

It was similar to “Fiddler,” which ran around the time of the Tree of Life shootings in Pittsburgh. “That was a horrific event that did nothing but deepen everything about our production of “Fiddler,” especially when I sang the lines in ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ about going to the synagogue to pray.

“The flip side became so palpable for me, which is that synagogues in Czarist Russia were barricaded from the outside, and Jews were incinerated on the inside. With the Tree of Life, people had to barricade themselves on the inside to try to fight against the shooter.”

It is that intensity and sensitivity that helped earn Mr. Skybell the nomination for best supporting actor in a musical, 51 years after the Lubbock Theater Center. I ask him if he still dreams — and if he does, about what.

“I was just nominated,” he said. “That level of recognition is something that has eluded me. The truth is a lot of my Broadway career has been replacing people, as opposed to originating roles. You’re not even eligible when you replace on Broadway. So I’m just delighted by recognition and hopeful. I don’t think anybody’s gonna beat Harry Potter if I’m honest.”

(Daniel Radcliffe was nominated in the same category for his role in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”)

“But the opportunity, this level of recognition, and what it might do for my career lets me dream about pet projects of mine. And certainly, Jewish stories are definitely where I would want to begin.

“A dream is the Yiddish ‘King Lear,’ which was very popular in the day of Second Avenue, so there’s that. I don’t know how commercial that would be, but it’s something that I am dreaming about.”

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