By Sabina Mollot
Broadway crowd-pleaser “Fiddler on the Roof,” which had a revival just 12 years ago, is once again back on the Great White Way, its latest version already opening to rave reviews.
Part of the new successful effort are two Peter Cooper Village residents with supporting roles, Broadway veteran Jeffrey Schecter (“Guys and Dolls,” “A Chorus Line”) and newcomer, 14-year-old Hayley Feinstein.
Previews have been running since November 18 while the show officially opened on December 20 with eight performances a week.
Despite their busy schedules, both actors recently took the time to chat with Town & Village about the experience of being part of the iconic musical on Jewish culture and cultural shifts.
For Schecter, it was just the end of what had already been a very eventful year. At the start of 2015, he was unemployed. “The future was very uncertain,” he said.
Then, last summer Schecter and his wife Melissa Schwender Schecter, also an actor and dancer, launched a dance and theater studio for kids (inspired by their first child, daughter Elena) called I Can Do That NYC. The couple also celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary and the birth of their son, Mattias earlier that year.
But not long after the following for their school started to build, Schecter found out that he’d landed the role of Mendel, the rabbi’s son, in “Fiddler.”
The dance studio has continued to run, but now it’s Schwender-Schecter leading most of the classes.
“That was nerve-racking; I was worried about the idea of letting go,” Schecter said, “but it probably was one of the best things that could have happened. The parents are happy and the kids love (Melissa).”
Meanwhile, the role in “Fiddler” led to Schecter being awarded with a gypsy robe on opening night, which is an honor bestowed upon a show’s actor who has the most Broadway credits. The robe is decorated with the logos of all the shows being presented that season.
“I never thought I’d be in the position to hear deafening screams of my (fellow) cast cheering me on,” said Schecter. “That they would cheer me on and show me so much love was the highlight of my career.”
These days the show’s eight-times-a-week schedule has been keeping Schecter pretty busy. He arrives each day except for Monday at the Broadway Theatre at noon for rehearsal, which ends at around five, followed by curtain time. The show itself is just under three hours, including intermission, and ends at around 11 p.m.
“By the time I get home it’s about midnight,” said Schecter. Not that he’s complaining. He had initially thought he’d missed his chance to be in “Fiddler” after hearing about a dance audition that came and went. Then he found out there was still a chance to audition for the role of Mendel. “I was like, ‘that’s even better,’” he said.
“I’m really a character that’s by the books,” he said of Mendel, who represents the old ways while some other characters are trying to break free of those traditions. “By today’s standards it’s very old-fashioned but back then women had their place and they hardly read and it’s the man who studies the Torah.”
While the story is well-known, and the last revival pretty recent, Schecter promised the latest version won’t be just a stroll down memory lane for theater goers. For one thing, there’s completely new choreography, including some modern dance moves.
“That’s one of the biggest changes,” said Schecter. “It’s a gorgeous mixture of modern, even a little hip-hop. It’s very organic, very real, but there are nods to (original choreographer) Jerome Robbins. The bottle dance is in there.”
And of course all the cast is new with the exception of Laurie Wilner, who played Grandma Tzeidel in the previous production.
Another change, added Schecter, is that director Bartlett Sher “is going for a true authenticity. You can get hammy with it, but he’s chosen not to. We get laughs, but it stays true to Tevye and his five daughters and his traditions, but also dealing with the changes in the world.”
Additionally, he noted, when the show debuted in 1964, the Holocaust was still the relatively recent past, which impacted how the show was played.
Meanwhile, the story of “Fiddler” is set in 1905.
“The take on it (now) is very fresh,” said Schecter, referring to the story of the Jews in the Russian village at the time when they were being pushed out, since there are some political parallels in the world today.
On his part in the production, Schecter said, “I feel like a rich man because it’s been amazing. It’s been one of the most unbelievable years of my life.”
Schecter’s theater resume started with the Nathan Lane revival of “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway in 1994. He later appeared in a run of “On the Town” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and ensemble work in “Nice Show if You Can Get It” on Broadway where he worked opposite Matthew Broderick 25 times. He appeared in a documentary, “Every Little Step,” in which he auditioned for the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.” Schecter ended up getting the role of Mike and performed during the show’s entire run from 2006-2008.
By contrast, for Feinstein, whose building is a stone’s throw away from Schecter’s, this is a Broadway debut. The teen has however already amassed a number of other theater, film, TV and voiceover credits.
In “Fiddler,” she plays Bielke, the youngest of lead character Tevye’s five daughters. Feinstein is the only kid in the cast though she pointed out the role of Bielke, who’s supposed to be 10 has been played by 20-year-olds before.
“It’s been great. I’ve been really happy,” said Feinstein, whose daily schedule is made even more hectic than her cast mates thanks to mornings filled with classes at school or tutoring. She had some mental prep for this though since her sister Tori, 11, had been previously cast in the title role, along with three other girls, for Broadway’s “Matilda.” And Feinstein spent seven and a half months on a national tour of “Shrek,” in which she had three roles: young Fiona, young Shrek and Grumpy the dwarf.
Despite just having the one role this time, “Fiddler is a lot more challenging,” said Feinstein.
Because of this, Feinstein said she’s grateful to her parents, who she said, have been supportive of her and her sister, by shuttling them around to auditions and traveling with them for shows. Her father Jonathan, works for Credit Suisse in Flatiron while her mother, Cheryl, who has a background in marketing management, now manages her daughters’ acting work.
“They’re very caring and supportive,” said Feinstein. “If they weren’t, it would be a lot harder to do this. They’re very helpful.”
She’s also grateful for the acceptance of her cast mates who she says are all “very kind” and that she still has some time, usually during lunch at her Upper East Side school to socialize with people her own age.
For Feinstein, the best part of “Fiddler” is the wedding scene. “It’s exciting. There’s this amazing dancing and everyone’s laughing and having fun,” she said. Perchik (a character with modern ideas seen as being radical) wants to dance with one of my older sisters and that’s something that’s unfamiliar.
“My character is young so it’s like, why is this happening, and there’s this idea being introduced. I also really like Matchmaker even though I’m not in it other than the end. It’s a great song.”
Feinstein, like Schecter, is Jewish, and both actors found themselves becoming more interested in their own heritage after becoming immersed in the story of “Fiddler,” which delves into the theme of Jews being driven from their homes by politics and anti-Semitism.
“It has a lot to do with my history and religion that I never thought about,” said Feinstein. “How we have to move again and another cycle and traveling and finding our place in the world.”
Feinstein’s resume prior to “Fiddler” includes a role in the film “Bridge of Spies” with Tom Hanks, where she recalled, “I had to cry and be really upset.” Then thers’s TV show “Louie,” “a lot” of off-Broadway readings, numerous community theater shows and several voiceovers for commercials and one voiceover gig for animated Disney show “Third and Bird.”
Technically, her career may have begun when she was a toddler and would sings show tunes from her stroller. After hearing from a number of people that they should get her an agent, Feinstein’s parents eventually took her to meet one.
“I got signed and started auditioning and going to acting and dance classes,” she said. “So it was more like an accident. No one was pushing me into it. I’m really happy about everything I’ve gotten to do.”
For more information about the show or tickets, visit fiddlermusical.com.