Where They Are Now


Steven Skybell '84 stars in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway--in Yiddish.

Lenore Skenazy ’81 heads the nonprofit Let Grow.

Matthew Murphy

Matthew Murphy

Steven Skybell ’84, ’88MFA, reprises the role of Tevye in the all-Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof at New York City’s Stage 42, 35 years after playing Tevye in a Dramat production and 45 years after playing a “huppa boy” as a ten-year-old in Lubbock, Texas. View full image

Steven Skybell ’84, ’88MFA, is playing Fiddler on the Roof’s beloved Tevye to rave reviews at Stage 42, one of New York’s largest off-Broadway theaters. Why is this Tevye different from all other Tevyes? The musical is performed in Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles. And it’s directed by Oscar- and Tony-winning actor and director Joel Grey.

Skybell grew up in Lubbock, Texas, coming to Yale as an undergrad theater studies major and then attending the School of Drama. His career has included movies and TV as well as theater. This Fiddler’s year-and-a-half run ends in January, but it may go on tour.

Yale Alumni Magazine: What was your first introduction to Fiddler?

Steven Skybell: When the movie of Fiddler came out, our synagogue rented a theater in Lubbock. In the intermission, the sisterhood served chopped liver.

Y: Chopped liver changed your life?

S: For a young Jewish boy—and let’s even add into the mix “chubby”—to see a Jewish story can be a motion picture, and that it’s a middle-aged Jewish man that’s being focused on—I think that subconsciously made a very powerful impression on me.

Y: What was your first Fiddler role?

S: At ten I played a “huppa boy.”

Y: A boy who helps hold up the huppa—the ceremonial canopy—at a Jewish wedding.

S: Yes. And then at 17 I was cast as Tevye at Interlochen summer camp. And jump forward maybe five years to senior year at Yale, and I was cast as Tevye again.

Y: A Dramat production! Your parents must have been kvelling. How’d it go?

S: It was the weekend of the Yale-Harvard game and I broke my foot—running in dress shoes.

Y: You’re not supposed to take “break a leg” that seriously.

S: There was a night I got hit in the eye at the wedding scene. And Tzeitel [Tevye’s eldest daughter] threw up.

Y: Pregnant?

S: Food poisoning.

Y: I got food poisoning at Yale, too. But moving on: did you ever perform with Jodie Foster [’85]?

S: We did a play together, Getting Out, by Marsha Norman. Tina Landau [’84] directed. In between the two weekends that we were performing was when Hinckley attempted to assassinate Reagan because he was obsessed with Jodie. We had a powwow because the campus was swarming with undercover police and the theater was getting bomb threats. She decided she wanted to do the show nonetheless.

Y: That’s chutzpah. But back to Tevye.

S: The Interlochen and the Yale productions—they made a lasting impression. My better half has met people from those days and they told him, “You should have seen his Tevye!” The crazy thing is, then he started looking for Tevye opportunities for me. It was he who saw that they were doing a Yiddish Fiddler, and he said, “Did you know this is happening?” So I called my agent and I said, “Tell them that, one, I have worked with Joel Grey, and two, I speak Yiddish.”

Y: Really?

S: I worked with Joel Grey in 2015.

Y: But the Yiddish? I read that you and your brother studied it together by phone in your 30s, just for fun.

S: And one summer in Chicago I took lessons.

Y: So you were fluent?

S: No.

Y: But you could speak enough to nail the role?

S: The day of our first preview downtown, it was like the worst nightmare of preparing for exams at Yale. The words weren’t sticking in my head! And we were told that there [at the Museum of Jewish Heritage] the audience would have a lot of Yiddish speakers and they would have no qualms about correcting our Yiddish from their seats. I was terrified.

Y: Nu? You must have done okay or I’d be interviewing Mandy Patinkin.

S: The greatest compliment I can get is that people think I can speak Yiddish. And it’s happened more than I could count.

Y: And do your fans bring you kugels?

S: No. Thankfully.

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