Tuesday, January 28, 2014

High School Musicals


In our little corner of the universe, the boroughs of Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg are connected by a bridge. It’s really the same community, but the fact that we drive across a bridge does create a bit of a divide. There’s a football rivalry between the high schools, though since 2000 East Stroudsburg has had a second high school, North. After directing musicals at Stroudsburg from 1984-1990, I crossed the bridge to direct at East Stroudsburg High School. The building is the same, but the high school is now ESHS South.

High school musicals are great, largely because the kids are terrific. I’m sure nearly everyone who has ever been part of a high school show, whether as an actor, part of the stage or tech crew, or pit orchestra will confirm that it’s a unique and unforgettable experience. I have to qualify that with a “nearly” because sadly, there are kids who for one reason or another have to drop out of a show, or sometimes have to be told they can’t continue to participate. Mostly the reason for having to ask them to leave has to do with a poor attendance record at rehearsals. It’s a commitment. The cast is a team. The stage crew is a team. The tech crew is a team, especially at South, where an amazing man named Mike Silvoy trains our techs and makes magic happen for us on an annual basis. Need trees? Mike pulls out twenty. Need furniture? Try this. You get the idea.

There is a vast difference in a high school freshman and a high school senior. Four years in age between adults generally isn’t anything, but those years between fourteen and eighteen are a period of growth unlike any other in our lives. When we cast a show we try and include a fair number of freshmen. The year of seasoning means we have a stronger cast the following year. In a cast of forty we like to have eight to ten freshmen, if we have enough strong kids to make that happen. By the time our actors are seniors, if they’ve stuck with the show for all four years, they are definitely stagewise, seasoned performers. Not all of them have leading roles; but all the seniors are the backbone of the show, and they have a great time. We recognize them in the program, those remarkable young men and women who’ve survived four years of high school musicals.

They are indeed a team, and in some ways, they become a family. There’s a closeness that grows within the ranks unequaled, I think, in any sports team or school club they participate in. My feeling is this is largely because of the music. South kids have a very strong music program and a very fine vocal music program. They sing well. I think they sing better than the kids in any other school in our county. I’ll probably get my house egged for that comment, so I’ll apologize in advance. We think there’s something in the water in East Stroudsburg that provides us year after year with fine singers.

We’ve recently done some tough shows: PIPPIN, THE SECRET GARDEN, LES MISERABLES, CAROUSEL. This year we’re taking a break from seriousness and doing BYE BYE BIRDIE. It’s just plain fun. The kids are great and I think they are beginning to have a good time. We have about eight weeks left of rehearsal.
As we all do, the cast loves the applause during performance weekend. But they do it for much more than that. They do it because they love being together and performing. They learn to really care about each other, and that’s what makes our shows wonderful. A good high school musical is a happy experience. Sometimes an uplifting and moving experience as well.

A surprising number of our graduates have continued to study and sometimes perform professionally in musical theater and related fields, and to teach. Obviously the total of the efforts of the music faculty and the musical theater staff have had an impact on some of the South students. We heard some of these alumni very recently at our annual Fundraiser. That they are eager to come back and perform in this building says a great deal about what they experienced here.

We work hard for excellence in our shows. I think most of the time we come close. Sometimes we even nail it.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Memories of Musicals Past


Thirty years of directing musical theater for community organizations and high schools has certainly left me with a lot of memorable moments. The most dramatic, I think, was opening night of a production of a sweet little show called “Heidi” (based on the novel of the same name). Two scenes before the end of the show, everything went off. I mean, everything. The sound “wound down” and the entire auditorium was plunged into darkness. My first thought: how do I get six hundred people out of here safely when it’s pitch black? Fortunately, Stroudsburg High School had (and I’m sure still does) good generators that gave us emergency lighting in seconds. The darkness had resulted in stunned silence. Lights coming up gave everyone a feeling of relief, and a murmur went through the audience. I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere, but that’s exactly what happened.

I went up to the lighting booth to find my lighting director frantically looking for the cause, convinced he’d overloaded a circuit. We learned quickly from a security guard that the entire town of Stroudsburg had gone dark due to a tranformer exploding. So there wouldn’t be a quick fix. Backstage, I learned later, the classrooms we used for dressing rooms had gone dark and were not lit by the emergency lights, though the hallways were. We had panicky youngsters crying, but cooler heads prevailed and moms in the cast and backstage crew quickly lit candles and calmed the kids down.

Two more scenes. So the director, pretending to be in control, went onstage and addressed the audience. We want to finish the show, I told them, but we don’t have sound or stage lights, so we need your cooperation so our actors can be heard. The emergency lighting did cover the stage, though it was pale and strange. And our two young actresses playing Heidi and Clara were wonderfully composed, stayed in character and sang their sweet duet beautifully. The orchestra was guessing at what they were playing: all the stand lights, of course, had gone out. I don’t know how they did it.

It was wonderful to hear the applause for the performance; I think we all felt a little like we were part of a shipwreck party! We were told the emergency lighting would probably only stay on for forty-five minutes, so we hurried the cast and crew out of the building, ushers and staff saying to the audience members as they exited, “drive carefully.” There were no traffic lights on in the entire downtown area.

My favorite memory of that unforgettable night, though, was an onstage ad lib from the actor who was playing Heidi’s grandfather. The line preceding the power failure was one Heidi delivered, something like: Grandfather! Guess what I brought you!

As soon as the lights came up, “Grandfather” quipped, “A blackout?” It definitely served to ease the tension. Sometimes ad libs can be a very good thing.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Open Air Opera in Cincinnati


One of the things I enjoyed most about my years in Cincinnati was attending opera at the zoo. Yes, you read that correctly. The Summer Opera was performed in an open-air pavilion in the Cincinnati Zoo. The monkey cage was fairly close to the pavilion, so part of the evening’s entertainment was watching the monkeys before entering the pavilion for the performance. It wasn’t unusual to hear the tenor sing “Celeste Aida” in competition with roars from the lions or shrieks from the peacocks, but it just made the experience more fun. At intermission, what I enjoyed most was the otter exhibit, also close to the pavilion. Watching those wonderful little creatures cavorting in their watery world was enchanting.

It was truly an open air pavilion, with the stage and orchestra pit covered, but still somewhat exposed to the elements. The backstage dressing rooms were also enclosed, but there was an open space between the dressing rooms and the stage itself. The audience was covered by a tent with sides that could be lowered in the event of bad weather. It was interesting if a sudden thunderstorm blew up and the crew hastily dropped those sides, often during strong winds that left audience members damp if not soaked. But that also was part of the experience. Everyone was good-natured about it – it was just opera at the zoo at its finest.

Of course, the operas themselves were often well worth seeing. As I recall, during my college years the opera seemed to be somewhat mired in money problems that resulted in productions that were a little frayed around the edges. The old guard, I think, were still running things. Still, I saw some memorable performances by once-great stars of “opera world” ... Rise Stevens, Charles Kullman, Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese come to mind. My most memorable experience during those years was seeing Puccini’s Turandot on that stage. I knew nothing about the opera other than having heard a couple of arias sung by my schoolmates, and I found it incredibly thrilling and completely enthralling. Turandot has been one of my favorite operas ever since.

A few years later, a dynamo from South America, Tito Capobianco, breathed new life into the zoo opera. New productions of more contemporary operas were presented, notably Floyd’s Susannah and Of Mice and Men. I saw an exceptional production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman sung in English with the incomparable Beverly Sills playing all three of the female roles. The bass-baritone Norman Treigle also starred in that production, in my opinion probably the greatest operatic performer I ever saw.

A year after I moved away from Cincinnati, the opera moved indoors to Cincinnati’s Music Hall, a beautiful old edifice with splendid acoustics. My family returned for a visit in the late 70’s and we saw an excellent performance of Aida that summer. But I missed being at the zoo. I missed the monkeys.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


When I wrote HOW I GREW UP, it seemed it was a story that needed so much to be told that the words poured out. The story was there, and had been for a long time. Recalling events and immersing myself in that period of my life were both fascinating exercises. Learning what my strengths and weaknesses as a writer are was invaluable. I don’t recall ever feeling what’s referred to as “writer’s block.” During the process of writing I don’t believe I once felt what I was doing was a chore. It was absorbing and freeing, and I felt great joy in expressing myself more creatively than I ever had in my life.

The story of HOW I GREW UP was based on an actual event. While some of the events in the story actually took place, some did not. Though some of characters in the story were based on actual people or were composites, others were not, but were products of my imagination.

I’m presently reviewing my second novel, ELI’S HEART, which is a love story and is almost entirely a work from my imagination. Because it covers a much longer time period, it is of necessity a longer book and required many more words. But once again, those words seemed to be at my fingertips throughout the process. In fact, I’ve cut a good deal of what I’ve written over the past five months in order to keep the story moving forward. And still it will most likely be nearly twice as long a book as HOW I GREW UP. When I announced on Facebook that I’d finished the last chapter on New Year’s Eve, I was premature. I completely rewrote the ending and broke what I had thought was the final chapter into two chapters. It works much better!

One of my kind readers, who is a theater friend, keeps reminding me “there’s no opening night” in the process of writing a book. The book is finished when you have a sense you’ve completed the story you wanted to tell. While writing HOW I GREW UP I felt something of a sense of urgency, though I don’t believe I rushed the book. I’m not sure when ELI’S HEART will actually be ready for me to pursue having it published, though I certainly hope to do that. It’s a good story. I’m glad I wrote it. Once again, a lot of kind people have given/are giving me help and support with this one. (Still have a few medical questions on the table for the very kind and supportive cardiologist who’s been nice enough to address those questions.)

I wrote the final pages of the final chapter only a few days ago, and it was bittersweet. I’d lived in this book for months, and I liked being there. I wanted to be sure the ending of the book was right. It took several rewrites of those two pages and some feedback before I finally felt I could let go of it. I think I achieved what I had set out to do: create two believable characters whose lives and love will engage the reader’s interest. People the reader will care about. They have a unique story.

The “work” part starts now: reviewing, cutting, changing, preparing the manuscript for submission. As the director, it’d be nice to have the technical staff take over at this point. However, I’d still want to supervise ... just ask my lighting director and sound techs!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thoughts on Musical Theater


Friday night, January 17, we had an unforgettable event at the high school where I direct musicals: fourteen remarkable men and women joined us to help raise money for our spring musical. Men and women who had performed over the years in musical theater productions at this school, and who loved what they did so much they want to help us keep the program going.

We did our first “alumni reunion show” two years ago and invited people to reprise songs they had performed in musicals we’d performed at the school. The building I work in was for many, many years East Stroudsburg High School. Over the years, as the district grew, the high school as well as all schools in the district became overcrowded.

As a result, the East Stroudsburg School District split into North and South. The ESHS building became ESHS South in 2001, and was renovated a few years later. A second high school was built north of the borough of East Stroudsburg in neighboring Pike County. So to perform on our Fundraiser, we invited students who had graduated from our building, which included ESHS and ESHS South alums.

This year we called our event “Wishing on a Song” and invited our guest performers to select songs from any musical we had NEVER performed in our building. The program they performed was full of wonderful music. More, it was filled with wonderful theater.

Many of the performers for our program had some professional experience; at least two continue to actively work in the business, and most continue to perform wherever they can. Some are still college students, pursuing degrees in music or musical theater; at least one is living, working and auditioning in New York, which is not far from us. ALL of them have a passion for musical theater, and we saw that last night. We experienced performances of songs: wonderful songs from DAMN YANKEES to WICKED. We enjoyed the music of Jason Robert Brown. We saw two intense performances of pieces from RAGTIME. We heard some songs we’d never heard before, performed with skill and polish.

The current students who watched these performances I am sure were inspired by what they saw, and they ended the evening by putting on quite a performance of their own of “Lot of Livin’ to Do” from BYE BYE BIRDIE, that wonderful classic musical comedy piece we are performing in two months.

The alumni who returned this year had also performed two years ago. They seem to have developed a delightful sense of camaraderie. They had been invited to say a few words before they performed and some took advantage of this by reminiscing, some by bantering with each other briefly. I loved that. They are ESHS and ESHS South musical people, and that’s a very special thing to be and something to aspire to become!

Being part of a high school musical production is like nothing else in high school. I think HOW I GREW UP makes that very clear. It’s an unforgettable, unique experience in music and theater that people truly never forget. And it sometimes becomes a passion, and even a career.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Back in the middle of the twentieth century when I was a senior in high school, I took typing as an elective since I had an open period and I wasn’t a fan of study halls. It was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I made at the age of sixteen (when decision-making can be daunting). “Typing” isn’t something anybody under thirty, or maybe even under forty, seems to understand these days. It’s the same thing as keyboarding, children, only we didn’t have a monitor to look at, we had to roll a piece of paper onto a thing called a “platen” and the keys on the typewriter actually struck the paper and left the imprint of each letter. Sometimes we’d type too fast and more than one key would arrive at the paper at the same time, so we’d have to stop and untangle them. That was for manual typewriters. We were lucky enough to have electric typewriters in my typing class and the clashing keys were eliminated.

We also didn’t have the wonderful ability to backspace and correct as we do on the computer with mistakes magically disappearing ... if we made a mistake we had to erase, backspace, and retype the letter or word. Or we could use something called “white-out” to cover the mistake, and if you used white-out you generally blew on it until it dried and then backspaced and corrected your mistake. Whether you erased or used white-out, it was always obvious that a mistake had been made. So we tried hard to type as accurately as possible. Tests in a typing class consisted of speed and accuracy. I could type ninety words a minute with two mistakes. That was GOOD. No, that was REALLY GOOD.

The ‘Qwerty” keyboard (look at the left hand side of your keyboard immediately under the numbers and that’s what is spelled out) is partial to lefties, of which I am one, so I became a very proficient typist during my senior year in high school. It paid off, because I had an important skill needed for entry level office work. I worked part time in my college office, mostly during registration, and eventually was a secretary for a fine arts academy in Cincinnati after I’d completed the equivalent of an associate degree at the College-Conservatory of Music in that city. I never took shorthand, but I learned something called “speedwriting” which was helpful to a degree; but because I could type fast and accurately, I was secretary to men (back in those days, women were secretaries, men were bosses) who liked to dictate to me as I sat at the keyboard. It saved a step; I didn’t have to transcribe from their dictation. Instant communication, sort of, but we still had to put a stamp on the letters and send them via the USPS.

When I wrote HOW I GREW UP I don’t know how many words I actually put into my computer. I did considerable rewriting, and re-rewriting, and re-re-rewriting. Just ask my kind and patient readers! The completed book is over 84,000 words. I kept files of everything I didn’t use in a “drafts” folder, and I would guess there are another 30,000 or so words on those files.

I don’t know how authors from the century before the invention of the typewriter did it. I find the idea of handwriting 84,000 words totally mind-boggling. I think there are authors even today who prefer to scribe everything. I doubt HOW I GREW UP would exist today if I hadn’t had a computer to write with. I love my computer. I love the Internet; it takes me all over the world, and back in time. Sometimes the “back in time” part doesn’t work as well as the “all over the world” part, but if I dig hard enough I can usually find what I need.

I’ve probably written twice as many words for my current book and I still have a lot of work to do ... that re-writing and making changes thing that happens. But being able to move my hands quickly over the keys on my computer keyboard is something I actually enjoy doing. And from time to time I thank my typing teacher at Oak Ridge High School for inspiring me to learn to type fast and accurately. It’s a skill that’s lasted me a very long time and opened a huge new door for me.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


When I wrote HOW I GREW UP, I included quite a bit about the preparation for a high school musical production of CAROUSEL. Most of that was from the perspective of the leading character, Melanie Stewart.

Some chapters in the book included descriptions of how the actors prepared for their roles and how the cast rehearsed. There was mention of certain musical scenes and numbers in the show, and the challenges faced by the young performers. Since the music I was writing about was show music, nearly all of it contained lyrics, though I didn’t directly quote much from the show. I described one important musical scene and two of the solos from the show in some detail. CAROUSEL has some beautiful instrumental music. “The Carousel Waltz” is undoubtedly one of the finest pieces Richard Rodgers ever wrote, and I mentioned it very briefly in HOW I GREW UP.

Writing about music so the reader has some sense of its impact is definitely challenging. I’ve challenged myself quite a bit with my second novel, ELI’S HEART. The two principal characters are both musicians. She is a singer; he is a pianist. Describing vocal music seems to me to be easier for obvious reasons; the lyrics tell a good deal about the music, especially if they’ve been handled well by the composer. All the music in ELI’S HEART is classical music; since Eli is an accompanist, there are some pieces I describe that include a second instrument or a singer as well.

One thing I appreciated about Anne Lamott’s wonderful book BIRD BY BIRD was her comment that people like to talk about what they do, especially if they love doing it, and are usually generous about talking to us writers. I certainly found that true with ELI’S HEART. I’m very fortunate to have good friends who are exceptional musicians and are also exceptionally kind, and they’ve shared thoughts on some of these pieces with me that have been immensely helpful. My musical friends were also nice enough to read passages I’d written and make suggestions that strengthened the descriptions.

And I am very glad we have that wonderful musical go-to place, Youtube, because it was so easy to hear new pieces that were suggested to me, and to listen to several versions of some of the music I especially love and had chosen to include in the book. It’s absolutely amazing how much “stuff” there is on that site!

Music is a vital part of the lives of my two characters. It’s an important part of who they are, and therefore it has to be an important part of their love story. I don’t want to write a musical treatise on the pieces I’ve chosen to write about in the book. I want the reader to get some sense of how the performer feels when playing or singing them, or how the listener reacts when hearing them. In one instance, Eli reacts very differently when performing a violin sonata he’s played numerous times, because he is in an unfamiliar and therefore stressful situation.

How much to include in one of these descriptions? How much is enough, but not too much? I hope what I’ve included is just right!   

Thursday, January 9, 2014


My novel, HOW I GREW UP, takes place in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was a junior in high school. Revisiting the events in the story meant recalling how different my world was then. And it was a little disconcerting, switching back and forth between centuries ... while I was spending a lot of time in the twentieth century while at the computer, I did occasionally have to return to the twenty-first, to do things like feed the cat and pay bills.

My hometown, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was unique. I suppose there were periods in the history of this country where towns sprang up nearly overnight, such as during the California gold rush, but I’m not aware of any other period in the history of the U.S. when towns were developed in great secrecy by the federal government, under the purview of the U.S. Army.

Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, NM, and Hanford, Washington, were three towns that were created in the early 1940s with one sole purpose: develop an atomic bomb to defeat the enemy. As I understand it, there was a great fear that Nazi Germany was well into exploring the properties of the atom with the purpose of creating a bomb, and the feeling was the United States had to beat them to it. You can Google “Manhattan Project” and find a wealth of material about exactly how and what went on, which is something I did. I also read a couple of books about my hometown to immerse myself in the era, which was post-World War II.

I grew up basically in a town that was still under the control of the federal government in the best way possible. I went through a superior school system, because the staff and faculties of all schools were on the government payroll and much better paid than teachers in the rest of the state. There was no unemployment; for years no one was allowed to live in the town who wasn’t employed either by the government or had been allowed into the town to provide goods and services to those people working for the government. It was nearly a classless society, because all the houses had been constructed under the supervision of federal employees, and housing was assigned. At that time, all homes were rented from Uncle Sam. There were no “mansions” or “estates.” Notice I said “nearly”: there was segregation. It was the South, and it was before the civil rights movement.

People had moved to Oak Ridge from all over the country during the early years from 1943-45. Where there had been farmland and rolling hills, there was a nearly instant small city of over 75,000. The town diminished in size after the war; eventually, it establlished its own government, houses were put on the market and people were even allowed to buy land and build homes as time went on. There was a military presence for years. The work that was being done was top secret for a long time.

As a kid, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I just knew it was a great place to grow up. It was safe. We had wonderful “woods” to play in with lots of tall trees to climb. We could ride a bus anywhere for free. We had great teachers; my high school had two choirs, a band (concert and marching), an orchestra, even our own harp, which I learned to play a little (enough to do showy arpeggios in our production of CAROUSEL). We had an auditorium that seated fourteen hundred, and we had state-of-the-art everything. We had great football and basketball teams. We did a school musical. I took ballet class, piano lessons, and voice lessons, and lived in a very comfortable house. We had two movie theaters and a drive-in. We had a nice little public library and public tennis courts and a good hospital and medical care. What wasn’t to love? I had a safe, happy childhood, until the day my friend Anita’s estranged brother-in-law entered her home one January night and shot and killed both her parents and mortally wounded her other brother-in-law. The entire town was rocked. It’s in the book.

I haven’t been back to visit in decades, and I’m sure much has changed. But the Smoky Mountains, which are nearby, still stand, majestic, mysterious, and beautiful. I’m sure Knoxville is still THE place to go shopping. The green and swirling waters of the Clinch River still run past the smaller town of Oak Ridge (Wikipedia tells me the population as of 2010 was slightly under 30,000). Radioactive waste and pollution from the “plants” continues to be a problem (nobody seemed to think about that in the rush to refine uranium ore into weapons-grade U-235).

A high school friend with whom I reconnected while writing HOW I GREW UP still lives in Oak Ridge. She tells me for people of our generation it seems a ghost town: driving through town, remembering who lived where all those decades ago. Most of them have either moved away, or are no longer on this earth. I should probably go back; the high school is still there, only as a new, improved version. I would think the house I last lived in is still there. I’m sure if I made a visit, I would be greeted by many memories of times past, and not a few ghosts.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


On May 6, 2013, I was whining to my good friend Judy Lawler that I needed a summer project. From 1989 through 2011, I had directed a musical theater production over the summer. I didn't do that in 2012 and wasn't planning on it again in 2013, so I needed something to fill my time.

She suggested I write a book, something I had always wanted to do. But my first thought was, write a book? Really? Can I actually do that? I said it seemed overwhelming, and she suggested I not think too big ... pick an event that had made an impact on my life, and concentrate on that. I recalled a high school friend of decades earlier who had done something extraordinary. She suggested I use that as the basis for my book, and said, "write it in the first person." That intrigued me. Sadly, my friend had died about twenty years ago, so she wasn't here to tell her own story.

I found writing HOW I GREW UP one of the most engrossing, absorbing, satisfying, creative things I had ever done in my long life, and 84,000 words and four months later, submitted the book for publication to Virtualbookworm, a print-on-demand publisher that describes itself as an "authors' clearing house." My manuscript was reviewed by three editors and accepted for publication and was in print by late October.

So engrossing that even before I had finished editing HOW I GREW UP, I had done some preliminary work on a second book. I've completed the rough draft of ELI'S HEART (working title) and am ready to begin editing/rewriting.

The process of writing has been fascinating. I'd never had a creative writing class in college, though as a show director I've written many "Director's Notes" ... one for each of the eighty-some shows I have directed for high school and community musicals over the past thirty years. I had also written an article about teaching voice for an e-publication for a music publishing company. That article was under 1,000 words, and I found myself spending a lot of time bringing the word count down. Writing HOW I GREW UP was quite an adventure in beginning to understand some basic writing concepts: "Write the story you'd like to read ... show, don't tell ... write long and cut ... " I did all of these things with my first novel. While it was based on an actual event, I wrote it as fiction, changing all names and being vague about time and location.

New adventure: writing as a third person narrator for ELI'S HEART. Third person narrator can't make judgments, must simply tell the story. But I get conflicting advice. If you are writing a paragraph and it's obvious you are in one character's head it's not necessary to constantly remind the reader it's that character who is having these thoughts. No, it's important to remind the reader the character is having these thoughts. What I've come to is as the author, if what I read and my kind friends who are willing to read for me understand what's going on, it will probably work.

Those kind friends may not have any idea how important they are. Writing is absorbing, engrossing, and almost obsessive, but it's something you do by yourself, and sometimes you re-read and wonder if what you've written is really good or really bad. Having nice friends who will read and give you feedback, I've learned, is absolutely vital.

So as I continue my adventure as a new writer, part of the reason for this blog is to thank those good and patient friends ... they know who they are ... for their input. They were vital to HOW I GREW UP. For ELI'S HEART I have more readers, and they are even more important, because it's a very different kind of book.