By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA

A couple years ago, Stephanie Lynne Mason’s agent asked her to audition for a good part in a New York, off-Broadway musical about Jewish immigrants journeying to the United States. There were two catches: the play was scheduled to open in three weeks and it would be performed entirely in Yiddish. With only three words of Yiddish in her pocket, Stephanie (the great-great-granddaughter of an Italian immigrant), accepted the challenge, which is what young stars do. Her success in this show led to her play major roles in other Yiddish-only, off-Broadway plays. I met with Stephanie in a coffeehouse in Manhattan to find out how this young shiksa from the Midwest became a star of the new Yiddish theater.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: What was your childhood like?

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: I’m an only child and was raised in a loving Catholic household in Columbus, Ohio. Music always seemed to be part of my life. While most kids I knew were hanging out with their friends on weekends and listening to Mariah Carey and the Beastie Boys, I was hanging with my extended family at my Grandma’s house and listening to classical music, opera, musical theater, and Disney. There were weekends where my great aunts would stay up playing cards until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. while I “put on plays” with my aunts, uncles, and the occasional stuffed animal or Barbie doll. I would make theater sets in my Grandma’s hallway and, to be honest, I was quite bossy. My Grandmother’s neighborhood was half Catholic and half Jewish. Even when I was little, I noticed the many similarities in these traditions: strong faith, love of family, and love of food too!

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: When did you start your musical training?

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: I actually started as a dancer when I was five years old, taking lessons two or three times a week. As I got older and entered the competitive dance world, my practice time increased to about four hours a day. I also loved to sing. I was in the children’s church choir by the time I was six and was “cantoring” mass by the time I was nine. At age ten I began taking voice lessons. A dance injury and subsequent surgery shifted my focus more to my voice. As I got older and was training more classically and more seriously, I waffled back and forth between opera and musical theater. But the decision was ultimately made for me when trying to get scholarship money for college. One of the mothers at my dance studio suggested I participate in a beauty pageant for scholarship money.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How did winning the Columbus, Ohio, Teen Pageant shape your early career dreams?

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: I participated in a beauty pageant—almost on a dare because someone told me I was too afraid to do it. Not only did I wind up winning, the experience really was an unexpected game changer. The woman who ran the pageant knew I would soon be traveling to New York (accompanied by my dad) to audition for the Manhattan School of Music (I was intent on attending an opera conservatory). Anyway, knowing I’d be in New York for college auditions, she arranged for me to meet with an agent she knew. The meeting with the agent went great. She wanted to work with me right away. Getting that news, with my father with me, is one of my happiest memories.   

Stephanie Lynne Mason

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Early in your career, you played in several regional productions of Fiddler on the Roof, including one in West Virginia. Tell me about these experiences.   

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: My first production of Fiddler was at West Virginia Public Theater, where I played Tzietel. It was an incredibly quick process. Regional theater is its own magical thing. Transplanted to a different city for a relatively brief period of time, you have to quickly create a family and a village. The director was incredibly smart and sent us a packet, kind of explaining Judaism 101, especially in the time of 1905 Russia. It helped speed the process, but looking back, I don’t feel I quite got it. In the second production, which was a mini tour produced by Atlanta Theater of the Stars, I was the understudy of both Hodel and Grandma Tzietel. Again, the rehearsal process was quick, but we got to play some pretty cool places, like Wolf Trapp, which is one of the largest and most prestigious outdoor performance spaces in the country. The third production, at Barrington Stage Company, I played Hodel under the direction of Gary John LaRosa, who’d already had experience with the play. He used the original Jerome Robbins’ staging and choreography and also handed out handed out information about the world of the Russian shtetls. Thanks to Gary, I really gained a new, deeper understanding of the show. Brad Oscar was my Tevye in that production and it was a beautiful experience. A few years later, I played Tzietel at Stages St. Louis. Bruce Sabath (who is Lazar Wolf in our current Yiddish production) played Tevye.   

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Following the regional productions of Fiddler, you appeared in Evening 1910 and Million Dollar Quartet. Then your agent suggested that you audition for Amerike the Golden Land, a play mostly performed in Yiddish, despite the fact that you knew three Yiddish words, one of them bagel. Why did she think you were right for the job and how did you prepare?

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON:  Well, I was out of work after a bunch of “close calls” and “almosts.” I didn’t have anything lined up and was feeling pretty low. My agent knew I have a knack for accents, that I’d been trained classically, and that I’d been in several productions of Fiddler, as well as a production of the Dybbuk, so she must have thought: “Why not?”

Stephanie Lynne Mason in Fiddler on the Roof (Yiddish Theater)

Also, I had a few friends that had worked for National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene. They loved their experiences and encouraged me to audition. They hadn’t known much, if any, Yiddish either, and we both thought, if THEY can do it, why can’t I—not to mention, I’m always up for a challenge. I got the audition while I was having Easter Brunch with my family in Columbus, Ohio, and my mom was teasing me. I think she thought I was crazy when I decided to take the audition. Once I landed the role, I was completely overwhelmed, but thanks to the incredible coaches at Folksbiene, like Motl Didner and Zalmen Mlotek, they believed in me and helped me believe that I could do it. They were so specific and helped me learn the different sentence structures and what every word meant so I knew exactly what I was saying. I would rehearse with my mother on the phone. She was totally my accountability partner and watched me struggle to learn the language and my lines. 

"Home I Love" - Stephanie Lynne Mason

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Following the success of Amerika the Golden Land, you landed another part with the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, this time as the lead in The Sorceress, which was followed by your appearance in Fiddler on the Roof, also at the Folksbiene—and also completely in Yiddish. This production was a sold-out smash; so popular, it was moved to a larger off-Broadway theater, where you are currently playing Hodl, Tevye’s second daughter. You have now appeared in four different productions of Fiddler on the Roof. What makes this show special?

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON:  First of all, doing this play in the language that Sholem Alecheim’s characters would have spoken adds a whole new depth and authenticity to the piece. The other thing that makes this production incredibly special is Joel Grey’s direction. He directed the piece to a place of simplicity and realism that I’ve never seen with another Fiddler. He stripped away the big sets, fancy costumes (although our set and costumes are beautiful), and let the story speak for itself. He rehearsed us in English so we could get to the very heart and emotion of what we were saying before adding the Yiddish back in. In a way, I think having the piece in Yiddish helps the audience connect with the play. While this is a story of universal appeal, it is an intensely Jewish story, and I think the Yiddish makes that fact more emphatically than English does. Of course, the central theme of the play is the importance of tradition, and for many in the audience, it is the Yiddish that connects them so emotionally with their heritage.   

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You returned to New York City for the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler. Your debut happened to be on Father’s Day. What was that like for you?

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: My father passed away in 2008 from complications with leukemia, so this felt completely “bashert.” It was as if he were saying, “Hi! I see you, and we did it!” It was an incredibly joyful and emotional day. 

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your Broadway debut was a swing role. What does swing mean? 

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: Swing means you join the cast for a specific period of time to cover the roles of cast members on vacation. As the vacation swing, I covered eight roles/tracks, including Hodel, Chava, Schprintze, Bielke, Fruma Sarah, and Grandma Tzietel, as well as four ensemble tracks. Eventually, I became a permanent member of the ensemble.

Stephanie Lynne Mason - Fiddler on the Roof (Broadway)

It was incredibly overwhelming, but Bart Sher’s direction was different than what I had been used to. It was so beautiful, deep, and poignant, especially his direction for the daughters. Being a swing, I got to explore the show from so many different perspectives. 

Throughout the run, I wound up going on for all four of my ensemble tracks, including Grandma Tzietel, and then, at the end of the run, I got a week as Chava. Having previously been cast as either of the elder two daughters, I never expected to play that role, but it was incredible to get to explore her journey. 

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Why does the train station scene between Tevye and Hodl affect you so personally?

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: The train station scene is a conversation between a father and his daughter. It is very deep to me … almost sacred. Tevye is waiting at the train station with Hodel. She tells him that Pertshik, her love, has been arrested, convicted, and sent to Siberia and that she is joining him because she believes what he believes in and that her purpose is to help make a change in the world. She says goodbye to her father, knowing on some level that there is a good chance she will never see him again. The scene always recalls my relationship with my father, who understood and supported my dreams but who passed when I was a young adult. I wonder what our relationship would be like today. Would he agree with my life choices? What advice would he have for me as a grown up? I was lucky enough to be able to tell my dad how much I loved him before he passed away. This goodbye scene feels like I’m honoring him, our relationship, his sense of humor, what he taught me, and the love and respect we had for each other.

Stephanie Lynne Mason in Million Dollar Quartet

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You are an accomplished dancer, singer, and actor. What roles do you hope to play one day? 

STEPHANIE LYNNE MASON: This is hard. Carole King in Beautiful is definitely up there. Guinevere in Camelot … Marian in Music Man … Dot in Sunday in the Park and Fanny Brice in Funny Girl are a few. I would love to get to play Louise in Gypsy again. I would love to play one of the women in Indecent. I would love to play Anne Boleyn, though there isn’t a prominent drama written about her yet. She was a woman very much ahead of her time. Those are a few I can think of.

(Stephanie Lynne Mason header and fashion photo credit: Matt Simpkins; Fiddler on the Roof (Yiddish Theater) photo credit: Matthew Murphy; Video courtesy of The Jake Ehrenreich Show)



Steven Jay Griffel is the author of the Amazon #1 Bestseller Forty Years Later.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.