Mark Schoenfeld's hard-luck tale gave him inspiration to write his new Broadway musical

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated October 29, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

For Mark Schoenfeld, singing and writing music are the only times he’s able to escape who he is and what his life once became. For the past 20 years, he’s suffered from anxiety, depression, and a seemingly endless string of broken dreams that, at one point, led him to live in Central Park. It was a time when an old boom box held together with duct tape and the songs he calls his ”sidewalk fairy tales” were all he had to his name. At least until the day a different kind of fairy tale unfolded. One in which he was rescued by an angel, given a home, and set out on an unlikely journey that ended in a theater on Broadway.

Schoenfeld is 55 now. And he looks and talks a bit like Woody Allen — if Woody Allen wore a beret and had gone to seed from a diet of junk food. In his self-deprecating, outer-borough New York squawk, Schoenfeld says he began his love affair with music while growing up in the Bronx’s Eastchester projects. He’d sit and watch as the black kids played basketball while listening to Motown on the radio. They had a name for him: Matzoh Boy.

Later, even after Schoenfeld moved to New Hampshire, got married, had two kids, and cursed under his breath in menial retail jobs, he kept writing songs about the people he’d grown up with in the projects. One night, he saw a 22-year-old local singer at a New Hampshire disco. ”She was the most gorgeous creature I’d ever seen in my life,” he says. ”She was like an angel.” Her name was Barri McPherson, and Schoenfeld hired her for a one-day session to sing a song he’d written. When the afternoon was over, he said he’d be in touch with her. McPherson never heard back from him.

In the late ’80s, Schoenfeld got a taste of success when a group he put together called the United Streets of America landed a record deal, but the deal fell apart and he plunged into depression. He got divorced, wasn’t able to hold down a job, and eventually failed to pay the rent. That’s when he went to New York City and lived in Central Park, performing his songs for spare change. One afternoon, he decided to perform across the river on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. A familiar figure approached him: McPherson, the singer with the voice of an angel who’d impressed Schoenfeld nine years earlier, just happened to be in town to sing at a private party. ”I could tell everything then just by the way he looked,” says McPherson. ”His eyes were empty.”

She invited Schoenfeld to stay with her and her husband. And there the two shaped his songs into something larger: a musical about five sidewalk performers singing the story of a girl named Brooklyn who moves to New York to find fame and the father she never knew.

After unveiling an early version of Brooklyn at a showcase in New York, Schoenfeld met with Broad-way director Jeff Calhoun (Grease!, Big River). Calhoun, who’d heard that Schoenfeld was living on the streets, suggested they meet in Central Park. ”I didn’t want this guy coming to my house,” says Calhoun, half joking. ”Because when someone describes someone as eccentric, I’m thinking nutcase.” Schoenfeld showed up in the park with his boom box, and for the next 90 minutes performed the entire show — not far from the benches where he’d once spent his nights curled up and afraid.