… it’s the latest chapter in another success story, the one about a trumpet player in a high school band who became a successful dancer and musical theater performer.
James Monroe Števko has a lot to share about becoming a dancer, about being a dancer, and about those times when there’s even more to being a dancer than just dancing.
It’s a little hard to imagine that when an artist is performing Jerome Robbins choreography in front of sold out New York audiences night after night and month after month — as Števko is — that there can still be more to being a dancer. But then there are the additional demands of musical theater.
Števko plays the role of Mendel in the Yiddish language version of Fiddler on the Roof that has been a breakout off-Broadway success, so he has a well-earned perspective on what more a dancer has to bring to such a role. The production is directed by the legendary Joel Grey, and with its initial four week run extended to a sold-out multi-year engagement, it’s quite a success story.
More than that, it’s the latest chapter in another success story, the one about a trumpet player in a high school band who became a successful dancer and musical theater performer. It’s a story with all kinds of valuable insights for other dancers or anyone just considering a dance career — insights about a side of dance that even a lot of dancers could afford to learn more about. So we asked James how it all happened, and here’s what he told us:
I didn’t have any dance experience but to this day I remember taking home the choreography and running through it in my room …
Johnny Nevin: Many people, especially those with careers as successful as yours, begin their dance training as early as five or six, but you were almost a decade and a half past that when you began. It’s a decision that you’ve said was one of the hardest of your life, changing completely from what you had known growing up as a band performer, to being a dancer. Can you tell us how you got into dance at the age of eighteen? With so much experience with both musical theater and dance, what do find are similar in the two worlds, and what do you find are the differences?
James Monroe Števko: Yes. It was 100% one of the hardest decisions of my life and I carry it with me on a daily basis. Junior year of high school at Glenbard South I already knew I hated academics and wanted to focus strictly on music, so I added choir to my schedule along with music theory and eventually another period of band!
With choir came knowledge of the spring musical. This year was Pippin and at this point I didn’t know musicals at all. But I was curious and auditioned, because I was a huge opportunitist when it came to doing more music adventures. Long story short, there was a dance audition using the choreography from Pippin’s famous trio with Leading Player. I didn’t have any dance experience but to this day I remember taking home the choreography and running through it in my room days afterward. The best part is, I wasn’t even cast as a dancer! That’s what I think got to me. I had no desire to dance until I was rejected; it kindled the flame!
But in the end, the things that seem to get you noticed in both worlds, aside from talent, is passion and love for the work in the room.
Once I got to college I was very interested in maintaining involvement in musicals at any expense! Unfortunately my school had no musical theatre program, so I signed up for a dance minor, which I probably had no business doing. The program’s director noticed my innate abilities and was vying for me to get more involved. It came at the perfect time because I was really grappling with the stress from the trumpet studio. I wasn’t confident in my trumpet playing, which led me to being overwhelmed with expectations of perfection of the huge workload from my trumpet professor. It led to me jumping ship into a whole new world. Oddly enough later, dancing with the Rockettes at Radio City would turn out to be one of my defining experiences where I learned to love the pressure of a high barre and precision.
The musical theatre and concert dance worlds vary greatly. There are different expectations, different skills and different budgets. As a dancer, less value is placed on ‘storytelling’ or ‘acting’. Not to say that it’s not necessary, because that’s the nature of artforms anyway, but musical theatre DEMANDS storytelling. It can be hard for dancers to experiment with musical theatre because they aren’t used to fleshing out a dramatic character while letting go of their technique to do so, especially in the confines of a one hour audition. Even for me this is a challenge.
On top of that, I find in musical theater actors are better instructed on the business side of ‘show business’. When it comes to resumes, what to wear and audition etiquette, schools are very good at training actors for cattle calls. That said, as a company dancer, you may spend a lot less time auditioning if you land a job for a season, so the audition procedures are less ingrained due to their infrequency.
But in the end, the things that seem to get you noticed in both worlds, aside from talent, is passion and love for the work in the room. Oftentimes casting in theater can be awfully persnickety, but that doesn’t mean your efforts or your drive go unnoticed.
It’s especially relevant today …
Johnny: Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish — in which you play Mendel — has been quite a success. What is it like to be part of a show with so much impact and so much history? Can you tell us about the production, and about the blend of musical theater with dance in the performances?
James: What was supposed to be a 4 week run has ended up extending to a sold out run, a transfer to the largest theatre off-Broadway, a cast recording and multiple interviews; it’s been a miracle of miracles.
First off, when we all met at the first rehearsal last year, we were all a bit on edge, not knowing what to expect from a Yiddish theatre and also not knowing what to expect from Joel Grey, the definition of a living legend. In one year’s time the show has deeply affected people. Whether it’s because their grandparents spoke Yiddish to them, or they grew up with it as their first language or even just because the industry has seen how much impact a language has on the atmosphere on a production. That’s my favorite part — hearing from other goys, or non-jews, how this language transports them outside of New York City. Our set is very minimal, so the language sets the tone for this classic musical that people THOUGHT they knew.
It’s especially relevant today, unfortunately, given all the politics on immigration and racism. But this month we were able to honor World Refugee Day by having each seat underwritten by a donor to have a refugee attend the performance, headed by Reboot and Jenny Steingart of ArsNova. Following the show was a talkback moderated by Lin Manuel-Miranda’s father, Luis, with many stories from people who have lived the events and circumstances that are portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof.
Speaking with him backstage afterwards he said “Jerry would approve” and I can’t think of a greater honor …
Once I started working on the show I realized just how well written it is and why it has withstood the test of time over 50 years. These Yiddish stories, made famous by the writing of the musical, are not just Jewish stories, they’re universal. That’s the best thing about this show, right now, in America and in the native language of these people. This Jewish town in Russia is a vehicle for all people who have felt marginalized. Whether it’s because of race, orientation, sex or religion; at some point in time I believe we’ve all felt this feeling of being unwanted. The use of Yiddish and it’s wonderful earthiness only drives the point home. The sound is rustic and guttural and amplifies the simplicity of this village that’s just trying to live by it’s traditions despite the persecution they receive from the rest of the world.
The choreography is very much the original Jerome Robbins, with modifications and additions by Staś Kmieć. I’ll never forget the days after the initial audition. The choreography includes the infamous bottle dance and Russian cossack steps in L’Chaim. Both of these include leg intensive squatting steps. For days after the audition my quads felt like they were shredded. I could barely walk DOWN the stairs it was so bad. The odd part is, a couple weeks later at the callback we did the same combinations from the show and my legs were fine. It was almost as if they were initially shocked from the new workload they were given.
It’s really a joy to be doing Robbins’ brilliant staging in New York City again and making such a splash all over the world. I’ve heard from people that this is their 3rd time at the show, or their 6th time, or their 9th time; and they want to come again! One of my favorite things is I seem to have quite a connection to the original Broadway production. A Chicago ballet teacher of mine, Peff Modelski, and the owner of a studio I currently teach at, Roberta Senn, were both original cast members who worked with Jerome Robbins. This week, none other than Baryshnikov attended the show. Speaking with him backstage afterwards he said “Jerry would approve” and I can’t think of a greater honor in my career to hear that from this man who I watched relentlessly as a late-comer to dance. It makes beginning dance at 18 worth every second.
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