Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Fascination of Everest


     I grew up not far from the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of drives into the mountains for summer picnics, complete with a watermelon chilled in a mountain stream. More than once I made the hike to the Observation Tower on Clingmans Dome. While steep, the climb isn’t precipitous, and you certainly don’t feel that you’re going to tumble into a precipice.
     My sons are both skiiers and snowboarders, and one fall my oldest son Steve took me to the top of the Camelback ski area here in Northestern Pennsylvania. While in many ways the Poconos remind me of the Smokies, they are not true mountains, they are high hills. Standing at the top of Camelback and looking down the trail to the bottom of the hill, a drop of nearly a thousand feet, confirmed skiing would never be possible for me. I had a mild attack of vertigo. I do better standing at the bottom of mountains looking up and being awed by their grandeur.
     I’ve done that twice in my lifetime with the taller, more rugged Western mountains: once in Breckenridge, Colorado and once in the Cascades in Washington State. Beautiful, awe-inspiring mountains. So it should come as no surprise that Mt. Everest has always held a certain fascination for me.
     When Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air was first released I bought a copy and read it with fascination and growing horror. I found the book, overall, very sad. I won’t dwell on the obvious about how the energy and money expended on these climbing expeditions could be put to so much better use; people attempt the climb because it’s what they want to do.
     In 1996, what began as an adventure with climbers full of high hopes became an increasingly horrific nightmare, and Krakauer says at some point: “I wish I had never gone to Everest.” But I found the book so riveting and so well-written I re-read it. I think I read it a total of four times.
     So of course when the film Everest was recently released, I had to watch it. The deadly mountain still fascinates a lot of us, no matter how unforgiving she is. I saw the movie yesterday and appreciated it. How can you enjoy the story of people whose dreams … however foolish they might seem to some … are so brutally smashed?
     The photography was stunning, and one of the things I liked best was seeing the great shots of places I had read about in Krakauer’s book and in other articles and books I’ve read over the years about the Himalayas. I was glad I had read the book because it was easy for me to keep track of the myriad characters whose story this is; I imagine without that prep some audience members may become confused, especially because most of the guys are bearded and everybody is wearing winter climbing attire. The scenes of the storm were extremely well done.
     I didn’t find the movie scary. I found the movie sad. And again the question came to mind: why do people risk their lives to climb this mountain? Once again, the effects of the extreme high altitude and the compromised reasoning ability were painfully apparent. It seems it is impossible to think logically at 29,000 feet. Deaths could have been avoided, and might have been avoided, if that were not the case.
     The star of the film is Everest, and she is glorious. I was glad I saw those great pictures of this wonder of nature. And still, people trek to Nepal and Tibet, and still attempt to conquer the mountain. And probably the answer to “why” is the same as Mallory’s was all those years ago:
    Because it is there.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Memories of Musicals Past

More Fog, Please!

     Yesterday I attended a very impressive ceremony at ESHS South, the school for which I directed shows beginning in 1991 and continuing through 2015. The school was originally East Stroudsburg High School, but when the East Stroudsburg Area School District was divided into two geographic sections in 2000, the “old high school” became South and the new, spiffy campus became North (I like to refer to it as “the Civil War” but perhaps I should stop doing that).
     The ceremony honored several hundred alumni who had excelled in musical achievement from the nineteen forties to the present. Not all of them were on hand to see the new “Music Wall of Fame” which displays the photo and a nameplate for each of these recipients in wooden frames that line the hall in the music wing of the building. But a surprising number were.
      This was a massive undertaking. A committee of alumni and friends honors people who contribute to the high schools in athletics, academic achievement, and music, and these people did an amazing job. The ceremony itself was well done and moved quickly, even though many names were read and many people were handed plaques. This committee operates independently, and no school funds are used in their endeavors. Private donations pay for everything.
     For me, it was an especially enjoyable event, because I was able to talk with some students who had participated in musical theater productions during the many years I worked in first ESHS, and then ESHS South. Some of the people who were there have become Facebook friends … a definite plus for being on the site … but I had not seen them in person for decades.
     Girls who had been pretty high school students have become beautiful and accomplished women. Their accomplishments are many, not the least of which is being mothers. Boys who had been struggling in high school because they were primarily music geeks are confident and successful men. More recent graduates are just beginning their college careers. It was such a treat to see all of them, and have a chance to reminisce with some.
      One man in particular, Kurt Moucha, had graduated from ESHS in 1994 and my history with him I think speaks to what being part of a creative art can do for someone. He was honored because of his participation in honors choruses, in particular Pennsylvania All State Chorus the year he was a senior. He had a naturally beautiful tenor voice and a wonderful dramatic flair which became more evident as he went through high school. He played the little brother, Randolph, in the first show I directed at the school, Bye Bye Birdie; and was an outstanding Enoch Snow in the 1994 production of a show very dear to my heart, Carousel.
     In 1993 we presented Oklahoma! and I think Kurt very much wanted the role of Will Parker. It was a logical casting choice. Will’s music is high. It’s a comic role and Kurt has a great natural sense of comedic timing. Will has to dance, and Kurt moves well and learns quickly. (He eventually performed professionally.) But there’s another great comic role in the show, Ali Hakim, the “flim-flam” man who bursts into town and creates havoc. It’s not really a singing role, but the role definitely works best if the actor can use an accent.
     Kurt had an amazing accent, and he was incredibly funny in the role. So we cast him as Ali Hakim, much to his surprise.
     When I announced this past April that I had directed my final production, a number of my “kids” from over the years posted comments on my Facebook timeline. Kurt’s read:

Thinking outside the box and casting a singer in a non-singing role. I thought for sure I was going to be Will Parker in "Oklahoma!" back in '93. But being cast as Ali Hakim was one of my most thrilling onstage experiences. And it propelled me on a path to pursue a life in music theater. Of course, you ended up having me sing a reprise of a song. Great memories!

     Great memories, indeed. He mentioned this again yesterday when we had a chance to talk. It’s nice to have affirmation that you got it right.

Carousel, 1994
East Stroudsburg High School
The Snow Family
Kurt Moucha, seated center

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Never Forget

Words and Music in the Midst of War

Every adult who was alive on September 11, 2001, has a vivid memory of where they were and what they were doing when they first became aware of the horror that was taking place right here in our country.

So much of my life was spent as a musical theater director for community and high school productions that nearly every event for those thirty-plus years is tied to a specific show. In the fall of 2001 the community group I directed for, Pocono Lively Arts, held auditions for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music on September 8 and 9 and had callbacks for adults on the evening of September 10.

On the morning of September 11 I was on the phone with a friend and fellow voice teacher, asking about one of his students who had auditioned.

The call was interrupted by a friend telling me the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane.

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “More Fog, Please!” and is my recollection of what followed for us during that time.


     We had callbacks for the production on Monday night, September 10. I was on the phone the next morning talking to a voice teacher about Anastasia Dietze, a young woman we were seriously considering (and eventually cast) for Maria, when my phone call was interrupted. It was my friend Judy Lawler. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” she told me. I told her I would call her back. Then the nightmare unfolded.
     My son Steve, who had been my lighting director for a number of years, was living and working in Westchester County, New York. I had no reason to think he might have been in Manhattan but I was not able to reach him by phone for many hours. Hearing from him, finally, that night, was a huge relief. I could hear the stress and anguish in his voice; New York had become his city.
     Cast member David Wertz’s father worked in one of the Twin Towers; his dad was late leaving for work that morning because he had to take David’s little brother to school. When the first plane hit, if he had not been late, he would have been at his desk instead of on the George Washington Bridge headed into Manhattan. He was able to turn around and was home by six o’clock. The family hadn’t heard from him all day and didn’t know where he was, or if he was safe.
     Another high school student, Meghan Lastra, had a cousin who had just begun work at the World Trade Center; in fact, it was his first day. He was missing during our rehearsal period. We learned he had been uneasy about working there. His remains were finally recovered. We grieved with her family. Many people in our community lost loved ones that dreadful day.
     Stroudsburg is within commuting distance of the New York City area; many residents work in and near the city. Children were kept overnight at several schools in the county, thanks to the generosity and kindness of many people who provided bedding, food, and comfort. Some parents never returned home. It was a very sad, tense time.
     PLA members wondered what we should do about the show. Should we continue? My director’s note for this production reflects the feelings we all experienced :

     On September 11, we were making final casting decisions for this production. We had just spent an inspiring weekend hearing some one hundred fifty adults and children who were willing to share their time and talent in order to help present this show to the community. Then that Tuesday morning, as so many did, we wondered if this undertaking was meaningful at all in the harsh new world in which we all found ourselves.
     The answer, of course, is yes. Without beauty, without music and art, civilization would indeed be totally changed. That all of us want to continue to create and re-create reinforces our very reason for being.
     Over the past weeks, all of us involved with this production have found a renewed appreciation for this story of love and courage. The story of Captain von Trapp and his family seems especially timely today, and I think, particularly for the children in the cast; our participation has given us a truly worthwhile experience.
     As always, we are very grateful to the small army of volunteers who make this production possible – the remarkable people who work backstage, the musicians in the orchestra, the people who usher and help with tickets. Thanks to all of them, we can offer you an afternoon or evening of reliving this lovely American tradition, musical theater, by two of the finest of its creators, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Community productions such as ours are a part of the very essence of this great country.
     Many thanks to you, our loyal audience, for helping us to celebrate America in this special way.
 Susan Jordan
Pocono Lively Arts (Stroudsburg High School)
November, 2001

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

Music: the Most Powerful Force in the Universe

This morning I happened to turn on Turner Classic Movies, my favorite television channel, and caught the end of a 1954 film I remember vividly, Rhapsody. Elizabeth Taylor played an heiress who fancied herself in love with a violinist (Vittorio Gassman) and followed him to a conservatory in Zurich in hopes of marrying him. But a young pianist (John Ericson) falls madly in love with her, and is emotionally distraught when she doesn’t return his affection. He’s preparing for a major concerto performance and in order to help him meet the commitment, she agrees to stay with him. Just before he goes onstage she tells him she’s leaving him for the violinist, assuring him he doesn’t need her. He can play brilliantly whether she’s in his life or not.

She hears the concert and he plays as well as she told him he could; and she realizes she loves him and not the fiddler after all. Happy ending. It’s really not much of a plot, but the music is glorious, and it was filmed when Taylor was probably the most beautiful woman on earth. The piano concerto is possibly the most romantic piece of music ever written, Rachmaninoff’s Second.  

That concerto, and that film, both play a role in my first novel, How I Grew Up. My protagonist Melanie is at the movies when her parents are shot to death by her estranged brother-in-law, and the film she sees is Rhapsody. Melanie’s best friends, Ellen and Krissy, are both musicians and she says to herself she must tell them to see the movie because of the beautiful concerto. Watching the ending today I was pleasantly surprised to realize the entire first movement is played on screen. Or most of it; if there was a cut it was done so skillfully I didn’t notice it. The great Claudio Arrau provided the beautifully performed soundtrack.

Later in the book Krissy hears her own young pianist, Eli Levin, play the same concerto with the local orchestra as a guest artist. Krissy and Melanie live in a town in East Tennessee; Eli lives in New York. Krissy falls in love with Eli when she hears him play Rachmaninoff. It seems their love isn’t meant to be. But Krissy and Eli have their own book, Eli’s Heart. So maybe it is.

The character of Eli Levin is a product of my imagination, but he was inspired by a young pianist I met when we were both fifteen, many decades ago. Samuel Sanders was born with a frightening congenital heart defect, Tetralogy of Fallot, and one of the first things he said to me when I met him was that he didn’t expect to live past thirty. What do you say to a kid who is six months older than you are and makes that casual statement? Sam was a prodigy. He didn’t start playing piano until after he had a surgical procedure in 1947 at the age of nine, and his parents were trying to find a way to keep their baseball loving son occupied. I think everyone was stunned when it was discovered he had this huge talent.

Eventually, Sanders chose to become an accompanist, a collaborating artist rather than a virtuoso. It wasn’t an easy choice for his family to accept. He made a difference in the world of classical music and performed with many notable soloists. And he lived far beyond thirty; he died after a second heart transplant at the age of sixty-two. His life was never easy, though the first heart transplant did give him some good years. 

True story: Sam Sanders played the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto a few months after I met him, and I was in the audience. He was amazing. I’ve never been able to listen to that glorious piece of music without thinking of him.

Both books are available on Amazon. There are links on my website to each book. Local friends: the Pocono Community Theater has paperback copies for purchase at a slightly reduced rate and the books are available whenever the theater is open.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Eli’s Imperfect Heart

Two Burdens
My character Eli Levin suffers from a frightening congenital heart condition, Tetralogy of Fallot. Eli’s story takes place in the middle of the twentieth century, when a surgical procedure had only recently been developed to offer some hope to these children, known as “blue babies” because of the oxygen deprivation they experienced.

Eli has two burdens: he is also a prodigiously gifted pianist. He lets neither of these define him. Eli chooses to become an accompanist, or a collaborating artist, a choice which means he is sharing his gift. He refuses to give in to his heart. Instead, he gives it to music, and to the girl he loves with all his heart, Kristina Porter – who eventually becomes his wife.

When they first met as teenagers, Eli was aware his life would probably be a very short one. Eventually, a second surgery was perfected which still gives T.O.F. patients a good chance at a longer and more “normal” life. Medical science has yet to find a way to make the hearts of these courageous people “normal” even now; and often medication and more surgery are required. Sometimes a heart transplant provides more years.

At this point in the book, Eli is aware of the option for the second surgery, and knows he will have to have the procedure soon. As I learned while researching the book, T.O.F. patients seem to share a great love of life, a desire to achieve all they can despite the odds. They never take their hearts for granted, but most do not let the condition rule their lives. Yet I’m sure they all struggle with their heightened sense of mortality. Eli certainly does.


     Sometimes during a break while he was practicing by himself, Eli would feel a sudden chill. He was about to turn twenty-seven. In three years he’d be thirty. He remembered he had told Krissy when he first met her he wasn’t expected to live past thirty, and he was sure she recalled it as well.
     When Eli had these moments of fear, Krissy was very much aware of it. He would grow very quiet and reach for her urgently. There was desperation in his lovemaking, a sense that he was afraid he could be making love to her for the last time.
     She talked to him about it, stroking his head, his shoulders, his chest. “I think I have an idea what you’re feeling,” she said softly. “I feel it too, sometimes. But Eli, what Les Allen said to me before we were reunited is such a help to me. I know I can’t really understand how you feel, my dearest, sweetest boy. But he told me to focus on life, and not to live or love in fear. Sometimes that has to be hard for you. Sometimes it’s hard for me.” He was quiet but moved as close to her as he could.
     “I know you’ve said you don’t think the power in the universe ... what I’ve come to think of as the Eternal ... intervenes in our lives. And you could be right. But I do wonder if we are given a path to walk in this life for a reason. I don’t think you even know what an inspiration you’ve been not just to me, but to many people who know you.”
     “Why do you say that? I haven’t done anything ... well, I try to share my love of music when I play. I’m sure there are people who don’t like me very much. You know what an opinionated musical snob I am.”
     She laughed softly. “Yes, you are a musical snob. You wouldn’t be my Eli if you weren’t. But people who know you, and know what you’ve been dealing with all your life, admire your love of life, your incredible courage, your artistry.”
     They moved even closer to each other, wanting to feel nothing could ever come between them. He said softly, “Having you in my life has meant the world to me, my love. If your universal being ... the Eternal ... did plan a path for me, I’m so thankful it included you.” He was quiet for a moment. “I hope I have more time. I think there are more things I’m supposed to do while I’m here.”
     For a few minutes, it seemed to them their hearts were beating almost as one. It was a lovely moment, and they drifted off to sleep filled with a sense of peace.

Eli's Heart is available on Amazon, paperback and Kindle. 

cover by Tristan Flanagan