Matzah Boy makes good with new musical

About two years ago, Mark Schoenfeld went through a spiritual reawakening.

Now he’s going to go through a financial reawakening, too.

Schoenfeld, 55, wrote the book, music and lyrics of “Bklyn: The Musical,” which opened in late September and has been going strong for several months.

It is a lively, energetic songfest. The exuberant young cast of five sing and cavort on the stage with terrific verve.

The play is about a group of street performers who put on a fairy tale about love gone wrong, and a daughter’s search for a father she never knew. Or is it a fairy tale?

The same question can be asked about Schoenfeld’s life: real or fairy tale?

Born in Brooklyn, Schoenfeld was raised in a series of public housing projects there and in the Bronx. For much of his upbringing he was one of the few white children, and almost always the only Jew; the other youngsters called him Matzah Boy. “Some used it with affection,” he recalls. “Some used it derogatorily.”

His mother, a Polish immigrant, tried to instill the values of Judaism, but he wouldn’t have it. He became bar mitzvah, despite the fact that he’d rarely attended Hebrew school. Or public school for that matter.

“I was very defensive about my Jewish heritage,” Schoenfeld said. “But I ran away from the religious aspects of it, just as I ran away from public schools. I just wasn’t interested in anything, really.”

If he had a passion, it was the music from his neighborhood — black music, gospel music. He attended college only until he scored a high draft lottery number for the Vietnam War. Reassured after that, he took several retail sales clerk jobs, but something was missing from his life. “I always knew I had something else creatively in me,” he says. 

Schoenfeld’s love of music grew. He wrote songs and performed them on the city streets. One day he met Barri McPherson, a young singer performing at a cabaret. For Schoenfeld, at least, there was instant karma. They spent the day together talking about music and singing. “Clearly there was something there, but I was still married at the time. So I just let it go after that day.”

Meanwhile, working in jobs he couldn’t stand, stuck in a struggling marriage, Schoenfeld fell into depression. His marriage broke up, leaving him a single dad to two children. And without health insurance, he couldn’t afford the medication he was placed on to deal with his depression.

Nine years passed. Schoenfeld was homeless. He was singing for spare change on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights when McPherson walked by. She recognized him immediately and adopted him into her home in Massachusetts. Married at the time, “she told her husband this is how it’s going to be, and wonderful guy that he is, he went along with it.”

In fact, McPherson had a history of bringing home strays, even when she lived with her parents. Schoenfeld and McPherson worked on songs, including one eight-minute number that became the basis for the play. They managed to show it to some industry insiders, who led them to other industry insiders, and pretty soon the two were working on a play.

Two years ago, however, Schoenfeld discovered he needed quintuple bypass surgery. He had only $6,000 in the bank, but his daughter went to the hospital administration and told him how her father had raised her and her brother alone. She played them his music and they agreed to do the entire procedure — which normally costs $200,000 — for free.

“That experience made me very — for want of a better word — spiritual. It literally made me more interested in my religion. I can’t remember the last time I celebrated Rosh Hashanah. One of the Jewish investors [in the play] invited me to his house” during the High Holy Days. “I was so amazed in his home and the way his mother said the prayers. 

“It was wonderful and I really felt whole again. I believe it’s really going to become part of my life again.”

More amazing, that same week, Schoenfeld reunited with his sister, with whom he hadn’t spoken in 15 years. “My sister celebrated Judaism. Now my sister and I are in love again and we’re family again. I can just feel all of this coming back into my life.”

Schoenfeld stands in the back of the theater while the audience drifts in for a preview performance before the play’s official opening in late October. He’s of average height, tends to wear a Kangol-style hat and silver wire rim glasses.

Asked if he’s nervous, he shrugs and says no. “After what I’ve been through, what’s the worse that can happen?”