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Never letting hardship hold him back




But this is a far cry from the fearful schoolboy with a bad stutter who was bullied. Today, this icon of South African musical theatre – as a musician, arranger and musical director – is flamboyant, outspoken, opinionated and determined to make a difference in his field.

This year Schimmel was nominated for a Naledi Theatre Award for his contribution as musical director for “Annie”. It is his ninth Naledi nomination in a career that has spanned more than 30 years.

But he is so much more than a musician; he is a dare-devil who overcame so much that life threw his way and simply used it to get even better at life! 

How many people would undergo trapeze training to overcome a fear of heights and then seriously contemplate flying through the air while conducting an orchestra? It sounds like pure Hollywood. The logistics still have to be carefully worked out, but Schimmel is game.

The flying idea, Schimmel told Jewish Report, came to him when he was asked to conduct a 45-piece orchestra for Gary Player’s 80th birthday in 2015.

The event producer wanted him to make a flying entrance down to the podium. “Nothing crazy, just a straightforward drop from 12 metres above the stage,” he said, revealing that it was both “scary” and “exciting” at the same time.

“As I was enjoying the downward journeys to the podium during rehearsal, I suddenly thought: What if I was doing proper aerial stunts and flying across an orchestra while conducting… I did research and found there were no flying conductors. And so began The Flying Maestro.”

He’s been training at a facility in Kyalami, which specialises in aerial performance training. “I have only performed a showcase. I am yet to make my official debut with an orchestra. It hasn’t happened yet because it’s a costly exercise from a rigging point of view. But my training is ongoing and I am ready to do it the moment the opportunity presents itself.”

Right now, Schimmel is the musical director for “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, The Musical” at the Teatro at Montecasino.

Some in a competitive and often viciously jealous industry might view Schimmel’s somewhat over-the-top characteristics as unnecessary, feeling that his talent is enough.

But Schimmel believes he is “not wired to be a wall flower”, adding: “Too many people don’t voice their opinions and state what they believe in. My ethos has always been that if you give somebody your truth they will always trust what you have to say – whether it’s what they want to hear or not.” 

An integral part of his ethos is one of contribution. It is important, he maintains, because it drives him at this stage of his life. 

“As a kid who grew up being bullied at school, who stuttered badly, who had a very difficult father-son relationship, the only thing that mattered was achieving success in music.

“There was a time when I had such a fear of speaking because I thought I would be disliked or rejected because to me it was a handicap.

“I will always remember at age 12, going to audition for Brickhill-Burke’s production of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the old His Majesty’s. I auditioned for Kurt. I got through the singing and dance audition and folded miserably in the reading because of my stutter.

“I recall how that experience impacted on me for many years. So, with that mindset, it’s almost ironic that I am as outspoken and opinionated as I am.

“My friend, director Alan Swerdlow, was the one who took me to the edge of the cliff in 1994 and got me to speak on stage and not just play the piano in the original ‘A Handful of Keys’.

“I will always be grateful to him for that. It was traumatic but it gave me the courage to become a musical director talking to groups of musicians and actors, to lecturing and now motivational speaking.” 

But it hasn’t all been success. There have been tremendous life lessons that have shifted his focus to what’s important and what’s not. More than 30 years later, it’s not the achievements he wants to be remembered for, but the difference that he has made in so many people’s lives.

“I will have been living with HIV for 20 years next year; I am a recovered meth addict of over 15 years; and I have overcome my fear of speaking in public, to name a few.

“I have chosen to live with passion and commitment and to contribute to the lives of others, and in so doing encourage so many others who may struggle with challenges and afflictions, that the one thing we have absolute control over is our attitude.”

Asked if he was a very private person, Schimmel responded: “I think, particularly in the entertainment industry, it is important to be private when so much of you is available for public consumption.

“I am an open book in many respects and I display a very colourful persona, but that’s not me all the time. Having friendships and interests in people who are not from my industry, keep me grounded and reminds me that showbiz is my job, it’s my passion, but… it’s just showbiz.” 



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