I had a chance to chat with Jeffrey Schecter, who currently plays Mendel in the newest production of Fiddler. We spoke about the dance studio he opened, Broadway camaraderie, and more.
What was your first exposure to Broadway and musical theater, and how did it influence you?
My first memory of Broadway was my mother taking me to see the TAP DANCE KID. It starred Hinton Battle and Alfonso Ribeiro. I loved it. I just remember watching this little kid tap his little tush off and thinking I WANT TO DO THAT!
What’s the first Broadway show you saw? How old were you?
See above. It was The Tap Dance Kid. I would say I was around 7 or 8.
How do you keep track of your different roles?
Not sure I understand this question. Do you mean when a person swings a show? I’ve been a swing before so I can share that if you want, but I play Mendel “The Rabbi’s Son” in Fiddler so fortunately it’s not so crazy. I do understudy Motel. The biggest challenge is going many many weeks sometimes months and not going on for the role you cover. You just have to keep working on it yourself periodically. We have understudy rehearsals approximately once a week and I also usually run through the show on my own every few weeks.
How do you recharge when drained? How do you maintain necessary confidence?
NAPS! NAPS! NAPS! I was never a big napper. My wife is and always has been. I used to make fun of her. Now with two kids, a Broadway show, a small company to run…I am pretty beat most days. I make it a point to nap between shows for at least 20 minutes. I also try to eat foods that make me happy and have lots of snacks around. Hunger and exhaustion do not make for good theatre. Well, maybe in some instances, but not for me. To maintain necessary confidence, I hang up post-its reminding me that I’m awesome. I’m not kidding. I looked at one last week. It said, “Rehearsal was great. I didn’t think, I committed and just had fun.” I looked at that to pump me up for the first time I went on for Motel.
What surprised them most about working on Broadway?
I think what surprised me most about working on Broadway was how it’s just like theatre I did as a kid, but on a much larger scale. I mean, it’s the biggest stage in the world, no pressure, right? But the truth is you get together with new people, some old friends, you rehearse together, eat together, wait for cues together and you laugh a lot. It’s a big family. We’re all just kids playing and finally getting paid a lot more than community theatre. There is no better place to feel special than with a Broadway cast. Especially if you have a cast like I do right now with Fiddler. They are just incredible.
What is your pre-show routine, and what is backstage like for you?
My pre-show routine is probably most relevant on matinee days. I always bring an egg sandwich and a banana on matinee days. I get to the theatre a little early to enjoy my sandwich, and maybe even catch 10 minutes of a TV show on my iPhone. I don’t have a lot of time to watch TV at home. So it’s nice to relax a little. Around 15 minutes in, I get dressed and warm up the voice and body a little. I almost always joke or share some funny story with my roommate Nick (Fydeka) and our neighbors Michael Bernardi (The Innkeeper) and Karl Kenzler (The Constable). They are great neighbors and friends. Almost always share a laugh before the show with them. I also like to share a hug with Sarah Parker (one of our dancers just before we line up under the stage) and a shoulder tap with my good friend George Psomas (Avram) just before we make our very first entrance for the show.
What’s your favorite part about Fiddler and the company you work with?
My favorite part about Fiddler are all the little miracles and beautiful surprises that have come with this show. Getting the Gypsy Robe, going on for Motel, The Tony Awards, Easter Egg hunt in our theatre led by our amazing stage manager Bess Glorioso…these are amazing moments. As I mentioned earlier, this company is amazing. I am considered a Broadway veteran at this point. This is my 9th Broadway show. I have never felt so much love and respect from a cast as I do from this cast. They just continue to shower me with love and accolades. Just the other day, Sarah shared that the ladies were talking about me. (That’s always good news. Even as a married man it’s nice to know ladies are talking about me.) She said that they all have so much respect for me and aspire to be just like me. They admire that I show up to work all the time, I don’t really complain, I have a wife and children, I run a small biz, and I do it as they say, “with a smile on my face.” To know I am inspiring these amazingly talented new kids is all I could ask for. Add on the fact that I get to work with vets that I admire like Danny Burstein, Bartlett Sher, Sheldon Harnick…it just doesn’t get any better.
Do you have any other nicknames besides Shecky?
Funny you should ask. My very first stage name was Jeff Crystar. Terrible, right? I got the Crystar from my favorite comic book when I was a kid. “Crystar the Crystal Warrior.” OY! No, Shecky is all I need. It’s a perfect fit.
What was it like winning the Gypsy Robe? Do you have favorite show you performed in?
Winning the Gypsy Robe was much more exciting and rewarding than I ever imagined. I have never entered a Miss America contest but I imagine that’s what it must feel like. To get the crown, the flowers….it’s pretty awesome. In all seriousness, it was just this beautiful affirmation of years of work. We all like to be acknowledged for great work, and getting the Gypsy Robe after 20 plus years in the business was and continues to be a pretty awesome gift. And the screams of joy from the cast were deafening and unforgettable.
What inspired you and your wife to start “I Can Do That”?
For years, my dad has been saying I need to open a dance school. I have never wanted to open a dance school because I had this idea that once I decide to open a dance school that I have declared in some way that I am done performing. I just know it takes so much time to run a school or start a new adventure like this, so I didn’t want it. With “I Can Do That,” it’s a perfect appetizer to what may become a huge school or academy one day. It was truly inspired by our daughter Helena, and the timing was right. At 3 ½ (at the time), I was frustrated by the limited options for really good Dance and Theatre classes for Lena. Not to mention the cost for a 3-year-old to take a class in Manhattan. Crazy! Add that I was very unemployed and had plenty of time and suddenly I am throwing out the possibility of taking class with me to our community. Within an hour, 20-plus moms said they would be interested in sampling a class. So I guess you can say we “workshopped” our first class. It was 6 weeks with kids between 3.5 and 5 at Chelsea studios. My wife Melissa (at 6 ½ months pregnant) helped me teach it. We had no idea what we were doing, so we tried something different every week. We would go home and say, “That worked. That didn’t. That was awesome. That was terrible,” etc. From that we started to shape a class and thought…we can do this. And so we kept going. A year and half later we are still going. AND I’m still performing! Melissa runs most of the classes and I handle all the biz stuff and teach when I can. I introduced a Musical Theatre Class last year for kids 7.5 – 10 and it killed. They already want to sign up for next year so here we go!!
Do you wish you had something like then when you grew up?
Who is the person you want to work with in the future?
I would love to work with John Rando and Steven Hoggett. I did a few productions of ON THE TOWN, one of which was for Papermill Playhouse. I Played Ozzie. I saw John’s production on Broadway and thought…He totally gets it. It’s not an easy show to make work and land all that zany comedy. I thought John nailed it. I think he would enjoy working with me and vice versa. Steven Hoggett is genius. I just saw Curious incident. The staging and choreo was so inspiring and creative. Love to work with him. I love Film and TV too. Love to work with Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Who wouldn’t, right? If I had my true wish, I would love to have all my favorites, Andy Blankenbeuler, Kathleen Marshall, Sergio Trujillo, Casey Nicholaw, hire me to star in their next shows.
What is your favorite number to perform in Fiddler? What is favorite moment in the show? Why?
Tradition. Love how we enter. It’s powerful and exciting. To stomp on the stage with all of my peers in perfect unison and dance with such pride…it’s an amazing feeling. You can feel the audience’s excitement. We see it, too. We are close enough to the audience and get the chance to look right at them. They are IN IT!!
In one sentence, describe your job
My job is fulfilling, deceptively difficult, and at times incredibly rewarding beyond anything I expected.
Which of your performances has left a lasting mark on you?
Playing Mike in “A Chorus Line” has left a definitive mark on me. 10 years later and people still compliment me and tell me how much they enjoyed my performance. “A Chorus Line” was a difficult show. I injured myself (sprained ankle) 6 days into rehearsal and it was an uphill battle for the entire first year. To this day, I’m still not sure I did exactly what I wanted to do with the role from a dance perspective. With that said, people loved what I did. So?
Going on for Motel a few weeks ago was pretty powerful. I was the last understudy to go on. It was the longest I ever had to wait to go on for a role. 7 months!! I felt enormous pressure to be good after all my peers went on for their roles and KILLED IT!! I am happy to report it went great and my peers were very proud of me. Singing “Miracle of Miracles” and feeling the greatest happiness was truly a profound and career-defining moment on a personal level.
What is your motto for life? Do you have your own “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King?
To laugh is to love. To love is to laugh. Laugh and love.
But better than that…”LET ME ENTERTAIN ME!” I Always say I love to make people laugh, especially myself. If I make you laugh, even better.
Would you rather always have to sing rather than talk, or always have to dance rather than walk?
That’s easy for me. Dance rather than walk. I just love to dance. I hear a good song and my body just starts to move. I have to move my body. Singing is fine, but in all honesty I have a love/hate relationship with singing. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I am fine just dancing and acting.
What do you wish you’d known before you started acting?
My immediate thought is a big fat “I don’t know.” I guess I wish I would’ve known how competitive it is. I mean, people tell you that, but until you are really doing it, you just don’t know how competitive it is. To compete against some of your closest friends and sometimes you get it and sometimes they do…it’s quite the rollercoaster.
If you had to pick a different profession, what would it be?
I don’t know if I could ever do anything outside of the biz. I mean I love writing, acting on stage, film, tv, making movies, etc. I love it all. However, I often think about becoming an astronaut, even this late in the game. I’m actually writing a musical about it. Stay tuned.
What is the most played songs on your iPhone/mp3 player and your go-to Karaoke song?
Most played songs are either anything Michael Jackson or something from my “Kids Playlist.” It’s a playlist for the classes my wife and I teach. “Rockin’ Robbin” and “Happy” are very popular. Don’t really have a Karaoke song. The last time I did Karaoke I think I did “La Bamba.”
What is your favorite cast album?
Fiddler, of course. No, I used to play Miss Saigon to death when I was in high school….a few years ago. I’m very proud of the A Chorus Line Revival CD. I think we sound pretty amazing. Definitely broke the mold of dancers who sing. We are true triple threats in that cast and I think it shows on the album.
What is the best Day Off Activity?
I tend to be on daddy duty on my day off, which is nice because I catch up with my kids, but it’s not so restful. On Tuesday I try to sleep in, and maybe watch something on my iPhone in bed and just relax. If I have a great day off activity, it’s definitely swimming in the pool with my kids. Did that last week and it was awesome.
Favorite Guilty Pleasure Food:
Ice cream sundaes. I love ice cream. The crappier the better. Bring on the syrup, the nuts, whipped cream, bananas, etc. LOVE IT!
Hidden Quirky Talent:
It’s not something I work on but I’m actually pretty good at impressions. I do a really good Joan Rivers (RIP Joan), John Travolta, and Woody Allen.
I spend too much time on Facebook, but it’s not my favorite. I actually don’t have a favorite site.
Kavalier and Clay. Love to adapt that into a musical.
All-time favorite show:
So many but the ones that immediately pop into my head are ones from the 70’s and 80’s. The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, and Diff’rent Strokes. I always joke that I am a black man trapped inside a white man’s body. These shows definitely make a good case for it.
Favorite thing about NYC:
City of opportunity. I feel like anything can happen in this city. Fortunately, I think of great things happening and not bad. I never get bored of seeing the NYC skyline, and it’s the city for Broadway. It’s been very, very good to me.
Go see Jeffrey in Fiddler before it closes on December 29th!