Steven Skybell is bringing Jewish pride to Broadway’s latest ‘Cabaret’ revival

Sixty years after it first graced the Great White Way, “Cabaret” has cemented itself as a must-see production whose message remains relevant through the ages. 
Steven Skybell as Herr Schultz and Bebe Neuwirth as Fraulein Schneider in "Cabaret" at the Kit Kat Club on Broadway in New York City, 2024. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Sixty years after it first graced the Great White Way, “Cabaret” has cemented itself as a must-see production whose message remains relevant through the ages. 

The production depicts 1929 Berlin and the rise of the Nazi party through the patrons and performers of the seedy Kit Kat Club. American Clifford Bradshaw reckons with Germany’s sharp descent into fascism as he falls for cabaret performer Sally Bowles. Simultaneously, elderly Jewish fruit salesman Herr Schultz pursues a romance with his non-Jewish boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider. 

In April, the latest Broadway revival of “Cabaret” opened to critical acclaim. The musical puts heavier emphasis on the Schneider-Schultz love story, which was cut from the Oscar award-winning 1972 film. 

Steven Skybell, who portrays Schultz in the latest production, spoke to Unpacked about his history of playing Jewish characters, the importance of “Cabaret” for 2024 audiences, and the importance of being vocal against antisemitism. 

Read more: 10 Jewish characters from Broadway musicals you should know

Herr Schultz is not Steven Skybell’s first foray playing a Jewish character

Skybell starred as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” to rave reviews, and subsequently played Lazar Wolf in the Broadway production of “Fiddler.”

While Judaism has always been a central part of the actor’s life, he found personal meaning in his time involved in Jewish works of theater after working on “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I have become identified as a Jewish performer and at this time in history, it feels very important to me to be a voice for Jewish stories,” he said.

When he was offered the role of Herr Schultz, Skybell jumped at the opportunity to play a Jewish character in a nuanced production. He felt that the questions raised by Schneider and Schultz’s interfaith relationship highlight the need for coexistence between different groups.

Schultz’s status as a more secular Jew really spoke to Skybell as someone who grew up in the small town of Lubbock, Texas. While he was raised with a strong Jewish identity, Skybell appreciates how the reform Judaism he practiced growing up is represented in a character like Herr Schultz. 

Audience members, Skybell said, leave the production with a better understanding that antisemitism does not discriminate between observant Jews like those in the Anatevka shtetl and well-to-do, secular salesmen in cosmopolitan cities like Berlin. 

Skybell is honored by the praise for the production

Steven Skybell poses at the opening night of “Cabaret” on Broadway at The Kit Kat Club at The August Wilson Theatre on April 21, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

Skybell was nominated for his first Tony Award in May for his portrayal of Herr Schultz in the best featured actor category. 

“Cabaret” received nine Tony nods, including best revival of a musical, best lead actor (Eddie Redmayne), best lead actress (Gayle Rankin) and best featured actress (Jewish actress Bebe Neuwirth). 

“It means everything truly,” Skybell said about the nomination. 

Skybell added that he is ecstatic that the nomination gives him the opportunity to speak out about antisemitism and the rise of modern fascism based on the increased media opportunities. 

“I’m honored and delighted and privileged that a role like Herr Schultz would get the recognition because the nomination gives a platform to more than just an actor, but gives the role itself some worthy limelight,” he said. 

Herr Schultz’s role is expanded in this latest production

Herr Schultz is a character that has been commonly cut from revivals or downgraded to a smaller role. In the 2024 rendition, the romance between Schultz and Schneider takes center stage in many parts of the 3-hour show. 

Director Rebecca Frecknall, who also helmed the 2021 West End revival of the production, made Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider’s romance a large part of her vision. 

“Rebecca Frecknall gave the Jewish story full value in this production and I know that it’s having a meaningful emotional impact on our audiences,” Skybell said. 

Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in “Cabaret” at the Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York City, 2024. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The actor underscored that the extra focus on Herr Schultz’s story makes the audience more invested in his foreshadowed tragic future. 

What makes Schultz’s storyline so heartbreaking, Skybell feels, is his optimism in the face of darkness. When Nazis warn Schneider against her engagement to the Jewish fruit salesman, he attempts to instill hope into his betrothed, encouraging her to follow through with their marriage.

Skybell was drawn to the character’s positivity and belief in the goodness of others: “I don’t think he can fully grasp the final solution in 1930.” 

Unlike previous Jewish characters he has portrayed, Skybell believes that Schultz is the one that best exemplifies the horrors of antisemitism since the audience can infer his demise in the Holocaust after Schenider ends their engagement. 

“At the end of the Yiddish ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, the Jews are all thrown out of their shtetl, but there’s not the feeling of the final solution hovering over 1906 Anatevka. Whereas when Herr Schultz arrives in the final scene with his luggage packed and ready to move on from the boarding house, one can assume that his final destination more than likely will be a concentration camp,” he said. 

Skybell believes that “Cabaret” is important in warding off fascism

While “Cabaret” has resonated with audiences for decades, Skybell emphasized how important he believes the 2024 revival is as antisemitism continues to increase worldwide. 

“Playing this Jewish character in ‘Cabaret’ is very meaningful to me. It’s more than just an entertainment gig. In 2024 this story, and Schultz’s story, specifically, is one that needs to be heard. It’s no surprise to anyone that today’s climate feels to me very similar to Berlin in the 1930s,” he said. 

He especially thinks there’s importance in Herr Schultz’s story being told in today’s political climate and the spike in global antisemitism, and believes that works of art like “Cabaret” are great mediums to tell politically-charged stories. 

“At this time in our history, where a certain fascistic, antisemitic rise worldwide seems to be going on in a pendulum swing in history, it’s more important than ever to give voice to characters like Herr Schultz,” Skybell said. 

Playing Herr Schultz has made Skybell a better Jewish activist

While there were not many Jews in Lubbock, Skybell never experienced antisemitism in his hometown. In today’s world, he said he’s seen more violent actions and speech against Jewish people.

As a Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, he feels a responsibility to stand up against antisemitism and uplift the Jewish people. 

“Hopefully by telling the story and inhabiting Herr Schultz, I will become a better spokesperson on stage and off for Jews,” he said. 

Related: Broadway star Julie Benko reflects on ‘Harmony,’ Jewish representation in theater and telling stories that matter

While Jewish representation on Broadway remains strong, productions have been met with poor sales and antisemitic pushback. “Parade” the 2023 production starring Ben Platt, was met by neo-Nazi protests outside the theater. “Harmony,” the new musical that discussed German singing group the Comedic Harmonizer’s rise and eventual disbandment at the hands of the Third Reich, closed within months due to a lack of ticket sales. 

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt of the cast of “Parade” perform onstage during The 76th Annual Tony Awards at United Palace Theater on June 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Skybell said that he is relieved that neither of his “Fiddler” productions nor “Cabaret” has received the attention of white nationalists. However, he is horrified that antisemitic protests are even occurring outside Broadway theaters. 

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that neo-Nazis would be a concern of mine while doing a play on Broadway, I would have thought that’s an impossibility,” Skybell lamented. 

He added that because of the vitriol against Jewish people across the world, “Cabaret” and its messages against fascism remain important to stand up against anti-Jewish sentiments. At the root of the musical, audience members are forced to question what they would do in the face of fascism.

“It is so pertinent to our times to be looking at the story and seeing how members of the Kit Kat Club sing a pro-Nazi anthem. Everyone has to make their own decision as to whether they resist that desire to join the group, or will they ferociously join in,” Skybell said. 

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