By Sharon Wisch-Ray
I have met more than one local rabbi who had “another life” before they were called to the bimah: nurse, Red Cross worker, Wall Street banker, IDF soldier. But only one made his way there via Broadway.
Rabbi Adam Roffman will share that journey in the form of a one-man show during two performances of Sunday the Rabbi Sang Sondheim at 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 20 and 27, at Stage West Studio Theatre, 821 W. Vickery Blvd. in Fort Worth. Proceeds of the evening will benefit the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County and Orchard Theatre of Texas.
Roffman is an associate rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas, and as one of his congregants, I’ve been privileged to get to know him over the past four years.
In December, Roffman performed Sing for Your Siddur, a prayer book fundraiser for the Dallas shul. Roffman explained that while the Dallas show had a cabaret-like flavor, the Fort Worth edition is more theatrical and delves more deeply into his intensely personal journey.
“The biggest difference is that I was playing to a home crowd at Shearith and people knew me and knew a little bit of my story, and I had credibility with them the second I walked out on stage,” he explained in a phone interview. “I had to really change it to make it more personal, to turn it less from a cabaret evening into something that has a very strong theatricality to it. The story of the decisions I make from being an actor to being a rabbi are explored in greater depth and there’s more tension in the piece… it feels weightier. It’s more like going to a play and less like going to a cabaret.”
Roffman grew up in Baltimore, where he attended a Conservative Jewish day school. Like most Baltimoreans, he grew up loving the Orioles with added passions for musical theater and Torah study. He graduated from Amherst College with a political science degree and the Circle in the Square Theatre School with a Certificate in Musical Theatre Performance.
The show is autobiographical with a narrative punctuated by 15 Broadway songs over the course of 90-plus minutes. There is an intermission. Roffman explained that in addition to being deeply emotional, the performance is somewhat physically taxing as well.
“This is a little bit like running a marathon. Being up on stage by yourself for 90 minutes is really taxing. You have to get yourself in shape. At times that’s been a real struggle for me. In the course of an ordinary musical as one performer, you might sing five or six songs and usually you’re singing with other people, but this is just me. And also, like I said, because it’s very personal, it is very emotionally draining.”
The rabbi sees similarities between the outlets of theater and music and the Judaism.
“There is a lot in common between what it is that Judaism tries to teach us and helps us explore — not just the everyday but also the challenges in life — and to think about them in an honest way and with an eye toward making the world a better place, and I think that theater does the same thing.”
One of the hallmarks of Roffman’s approach to both Judaism and theater is intention and honesty.
“When I talk about prayer, I talk about being honest,” he says. “When you go through these words the idea is to internalize them and make them personal and that means — most of the time — to struggle with them. If you are reading a line in the prayer book and praying it, you first have to decide in your own mind if there’s truth in what you are saying and if there isn’t, you have to ask the question why. Ultimately the goal is to get yourself to a point where you can believe the things you are saying. But it’s that moment in honesty where the real power in prayer is.”
Roffman explained that as a performer he had a similar experience to what one might have with prayer. Some of the songs he will perform, he has been singing for 20-plus years, but when he went to practice them it was almost as if he didn’t know the words at all. Coming to terms with their meaning for him in the context of his life story was an arduous process. It is difficult to accept that the path one thought they were on is not where they will end up.
“A lot of the songs that I sing, especially toward the middle of the show, are about the complexities of life and how life is not black and white, that there are lots of different shades of gray and the more honest you are about the challenges you face, the more real the solutions become.”
Roffman will be accompanied by a gifted Dallas musician, pianist Jon Schweikhard. He explained that the music is difficult and having a talent like Schweikhard as accompaniment and Jim Covault as director makes the show run smoothly. Orchard Theatre founder and playwright Richard Allen helped shape the script. The rabbi also alluded to the fact that there may a surprise guest or guests adding to the show at some point, but wouldn’t elaborate.
It is clear from talking to Roffman that he loves his day job — rabbi— and his hobby — musical performer. But perhaps his greatest joy is being a husband and father.
Roffman and his wife Rabbi Shira Wallach are parents of daughter Hannah, age 2. Roffman kvelled when he shared an anecdote of Hannah spontaneously at the piano, imitating his practice sessions with full intention — carefully fingering the piano keys and “singing” lyrics.
Roffman attributes much of his show’s success to his wife Shira, who is a gifted singer in her own right. “As always, I could not possibly have done this without Shira. I trust her so implicitly with getting the story right and being a sounding board in helping me tell it, but also she’s come to love this story of me as much as I have. So we’ve been sharing that together.”
Roffman can’t wait for the first performance this weekend. “There is a lot of joy in the performance of musical theater songs for me. Just the opportunity to do that is great. I get a lot of joy out of singing.”
Tickets for the show are $30 each or $100 for a group of four. They can be purchased at www.orchardtheatre.org.