“We use our bodies as instruments on the stage and they need proper maintenance and warm-ups, just as in CrossFit. Singing and doing a WOD tired are equally difficult."
When Paul Schaefer joined the cast of Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera in early 2007, he had no illusions about the demands of the job. Performing on stage is exhilarating; it also can be exhausting.
In addition to eight weekly performances as The Marksman, Schaefer is also involved in upwards of 12 hours of physically-demanding rehearsal. As the cover for the Phantom and Raoul, he has to know all three roles and be ready to perform any of them in case a regular actor is unable to appear on stage due to an emergency, illness or vacation.
After a particularly trying year, Schaefer tried CrossFit for the first time in March of 2011.
“I had started the process of a divorce, which was crushing, and there were some terrible work and family events. It was the worst year of my life,” Schaefer says. “I needed an outlet to pour myself into. I took a free CrossFit intro class and was instantly hungry for it.”
Schaefer had also been struggling with insomnia and was prescribed medication for anxiety. After that first free class, he joined CrossFit NYC: The Black Box and started training five days a week.
“I figured CrossFit was better than drugs and alcohol. It helped me sleep and kept my brain busy with something besides my problems. It was my solace,” Schaefer recalls. “I found relief in burning out all my emotional stress, going 100 percent in every workout. I had no goals, but over a few months, I was in the best shape of my life.”
At 6-feet-1-inch, Schaefer was a lean 190 pounds; having tried a variety of eating and fitness programs over a decade, he says he had never seen such rapid aesthetic results as with the combination of CrossFit and a high-block Zone diet that only includes paleo foods.
Another Type of Performance
In 2012, Schaefer competed in the Reebok CrossFit Games Open; the experience left him wanting more.
“I wanted to spend at least a year making a run for the Regionals and I soon found out that CrossFit isn’t just about grit and never stopping — it’s about preparation and attacking weaknesses,” Schaefer says. “When you take a hard look at what you suck at, it’s incredible how many things there are; they seem to multiply sometimes.”
He has shaved minutes off his Fran by working his butterfly pull-ups until they were “smooth” and has gone up to 315 lb. on his front squat. Still, Olympic weightlifting — snatches, in particular — is a weakness. Having never been exposed to formal training prior to CrossFit, Schaefer invested in private lessons and is working on snatching his bodyweight, 205 pounds. Although he is dedicated, sometimes the demands of his job are incongruent with training to qualify for the North East Regional.
“If I wasn’t in Phantom, I’m sure I’d be able to push a little harder and do a little more. But that’s what I do, so I make it work,” Schaefer says. “If I’m on as The Phantom and I just did some max squats followed by some ungodly chipper, getting the energy to do the part properly is difficult, especially if I’m having trouble walking.”
Schafer, who now trains at Reebok CrossFit 5th Avenue and follows the programming of Virginia’s Outlaw CrossFit, has successfully attended the CrossFit Level 1 Seminar, the CrossFit Olympic Weightlifting Trainer Course and the CrossFit Kettlebell Trainer Course.
“I took these courses to make myself a more well-rounded athlete and have learned some great cues from it,” Schaefer says. “I started to enjoy assistant coaching or helping out fellow athletes with lifts or gymnastic skills. I think I’d love coaching and I have expressed my interest in it, so we will see.”
CrossFit and Broadway — Not So Different
Now, Schaefer says he sees many similarities between CrossFit and performing on stage, especially when it comes to warm-ups, rest and recovery.
“We use our bodies as instruments on the stage and they need proper maintenance and warm-ups, just as in CrossFit. Singing and doing a WOD tired are equally difficult,” he explains. “Sleep and rest are vital. I spend 30 minutes warming up my voice sometimes for harder shows and I do the same for harder WODS. If I eat dairy or sugars, my phlegm and energy levels will go bonkers, which is difficult for singing and it will also slow me down in CrossFit. If I over-sing or over-train, I need extra recovery.”
CrossFit movements also have weaved their way into his on-stage performances and Schaefer equates getting ready for a show with getting ready for a WOD.
“My pals who have come to see me in the show have noticed when I’m squatting in a scene my knees are always going out,” Schaefer adds. “The butterflies and nervousness are the same. You know that you will be fine at the end of it, but you are about to stress and exhaust your body to the max. You think about getting ready to perform in front of 1,600 people and you know you have to hold up the show — and there you have it, welcome to getting ready for Fran.”
He credits CrossFit with helping him become a calmer and happier person.
“I am grateful to CrossFit for so much,” Schaefer says. “It has helped me out of my darkest days and I will do it the rest of my life.”