Children will listen: Students at New York City’s PS 212 learn about theatre from Sondheim and others
Features and Interviews
The cast of the revival of Company
Standing by for Sweeney Todd
Sondheim’s penchant for games
Youthful cast presents Assassins
First-graders study Broadway, meet Sondheim
Online resources for Sondheim fans
Conversation with Telly Leung
Biography of a Song: “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”
Reviews and Reactions
Gypsy at Ravinia
Sweeney and Woods in Orlando
Weekend of Sondheim in Chicago
Sweeney in Wisconsin
Westport Country Playhouse salutes Sondheim
Forum in Cleveland
Night Music at Wilmington College
Candide in Prague
Maria Friedman: Now and Then
Complete list of contents for back issues of TSR
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Children will listen:
Students at New York City’s PS 212 learn
about theatre from Sondheim and others
By John Olson
When visiting Times Square in New York City to see a show, we might not consider that this extraordinary district is also a neighborhood with many of the ordinary institutions found in any other communities — grocery and drug stores, police and fire services, churches and even an elementary school.
PS 212 on West 48th Street, also known as Midtown West School, is a public K-5 school founded in 1989. Central to its social studies core curriculum (although it teaches reading, math and writing as well) is a mission of teaching an understanding and appreciation of community. The school views the entire city as its classroom, but for the 2005-2006 school year, the first-grade classes of teachers Bryan Andes and Karl Heist were immersed in a more specific sort of village — the world of the theatre community. The school’s “neighbors” — including some of Broadway’s most successful artists, including Stephen Sondheim, Joanna Gleason, Joe Mantello and Stephen Schwartz, as well as key players from usher to producer — unhesitatingly came forward to teach these children how the theatre community collaborates to create art and entertainment.
Andes and Heist’s students were charged with a year-long project: to research the entire process of writing, producing and performing musical theatre so that they could create and perform an original musical of their own at year’s end. On an average of once a week, the classes were visited by a theatre professional or the students would take a field trip to a nearby theatre to see how the work is done. PS 212’s students come from diverse economic, social and ethnic backgrounds representing all of New York City. As only a few are children of theatre professionals, the students will probably never understand that they had the sort of theatre business “networking” experience a pro would die for.
For each class, students began by interviewing their guest about his or her craft, reading from a list of questions the class had prepared in advance. They would be given a brief lesson in the craft and then begin to practice the craft itself, with coaching from their guest. Early guests included playwright Jose Rivera (Marisol), costume designer Tracy Christensen (Candide, Souvenir) and Into the Woods’ Joanna Gleason, who led them through scenes from that show. Phylicia Rashad stopped by to sing a verse of “Children Will Listen” and explained how Into the Woods and A Raisin in the Sun have similar themes. Stephen Schwartz shared his process for songwriting, using his song “For Good” from Wicked as an example. Set designer Peter Harrison prepared the children to design sets of their own. Casting director Bernie Telsey gave them mock auditions for Wicked so that they could adopt the process when casting their own shows.
The grade-schoolers were taught about stage direction by Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins), arguably Broadway’s hottest director, and by the up-and-coming director Scott Schwartz (Golda’s Balcony, Bat Boy). They got lessons in musical theatre performing from Kelli O’Hara and Aaron Lazar (The Light in the Piazza), Jessica Boevers and Christopher J. Hanke (In My Life) and Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn). Choreographer Jerry Mitchell showed them two dances from Hairspray, while Wicked’s fight director Tom Schall taught them how to do simple stage fights.
To appreciate the roles of offstage personnel, the classes took field trips throughout their neighborhood. At the Majestic, carpenter George Dummitt described all of the backstage activity that brings The Phantom of the Opera to life, and stagehand Ira Mont showed them the ropes backstage at The Producers. A visit to the Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater included a trip backstage guided by Roy Harris, stage manager for Wendy Wasserstein’s Third. The Nederlander Organization’s Mike Loricano gave them an introduction to box office procedures, and the kids practiced taking tickets and ushering at Playwrights Horizons under the tutelage of house and production company managers Brad Ellis and Caroline Aquino.
Each of the two classes was assigned with the writing and all production aspects — including set and costume design, management and performing — of a 30-minute original musical. The students wrote the original books collaboratively, and interpolated existing show tunes into the shows. Andes’ class did a take on fairy tales called Once Upon a Dream, influenced by Into the Woods, while Heist’s students created a contemporary story, Hans and Hannah’s Big Adventure.
When it was time to perform, the entire cast of Rabbit Hole (Tyne Daly, Cynthia Nixon et al.) came to do a reading of Once Upon a Dream. Before beginning their own rehearsals, the classes sat in on an understudy rehearsal for John Doyle’s production of Sweeney Todd. As if to prepare them for the tough drama reviewers of the New York City media, they were visited by The New York Times’ chief critic Ben Brantley, who viewed a scene from Oklahoma! on video with the students, then wrote a one-paragraph review of the portion they viewed.
A deep level of parental involvement is also central to the school’s mission, so there was not a prayer that the parents would escape the traditional task of hand-sewing the costumes. But Andes says the parents were exceptionally supportive of the project. Those parents who were professional musicians playing on Broadway and at the Met even moonlighted in the shows’ six-piece pit orchestra, led by Ted Mook.
In case the students were getting any big dreams about their shows moving to Broadway, they were given a dose of reality from Jujamcyn’s Jordan Roth, who told them about one of his shows that succeeded (The Rocky Horror Show) and another that didn’t (The Mambo Kings). They also learned the history of a Broadway classic, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, from its original producer, Philip Rose.
When a student asked why Rose decided to produce Raisin, he simply explained, “There was a family that was having a lot of problems. They wanted to move into a neighborhood, and they weren’t going to be allowed to move into that neighborhood because they were a black family. So I was very touched by that, and that’s why I decided to do the play.”
The capstone of their guest lecturer series was a visit by Stephen Sondheim on May 3, 2006, the day of the shows’ openings. Andes says Sondheim responded “within a day” to his invitation to speak to the class. The students developed a list of 13 questions for the composer and took turns asking them. Sondheim patiently covered frequently asked questions like “How come you wanted to be a composer and lyricist?” (answering that his friend’s father was a songwriter, “so I became a songwriter”) and “Is it difficult to come up with the lyrics?” (“It’s very difficult. I find lyric writing very, very, very, very, very difficult.”) He gave the children an introduction to the ambiguity inherent in some of his lyrics, when providing them an example of how he might use a thesaurus to find “a word that doesn’t quite mean bad, but bad with good aspects.”
Perhaps the class’s recent visit to the rehearsal of Sweeney Todd prompted them to ask, “What makes a song sound scary?” a question Sondheim seemed particularly to enjoy answering. He replied, “Sometimes it’s in the orchestra. A low growling instrument like a bassoon or a double bass will sound scary. Or a high violin sound. … Sometimes it’s the chords that you put in a song. … The chords have a certain sound that you put in there that seems wrong, so that can also be kind of scary. There are certain sounds that always sound scary because we’re so used to hearing them in movies and on TV. When you start hearing a low, growling, double bass, you start associating that with monster movies. When you hear that sound, you know what’s coming, so you get that sort of reaction even before you see the monster.”
Apparently enjoying his visit, Sondheim sometimes lapsed between simple and more technical answers to the kids’ questions. But he never appeared patronizing or impatient. Asked if he had favorite songs from Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, he said he didn’t have a favorite from the latter show but, not surprisingly, mentioned the former’s “Children Will Listen” to the attentive kids.
Performances of the two student musicals were given on May 3 and4. Sondheim was unable to attend due to a prior commitment to accompany Bernadette Peters on the piano at a benefit for the Young Playwrights Festival, but composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz was there. The printed programs parodied Playbill. Brantley did not review the production, but the parents in attendance must certainly have raved .
In correspondence with Andes after the productions, Gleason commented on the value of giving children such intensive exposure to acting. She wrote, “Here they come to be known while assuming the safe guises of ‘characters.’ In enveloping themselves so completely in these other worlds, using other voices, we learn about our kids in a safe and therapeutic way. That is our job, to learn who they are and what they want, and what gives them joy.”
Andes sees additional lessons for the students as well, such as learning the value of collaboration in building a community. “They learn how to respect each other and recognize the unique individual talents of each person in creativity and problem solving. Everyone is important.”
At curtain call, all the children, whether their roles were onstage, offstage or in the house, took bows — proving that “No One is Alone,” at least not in this community. During the 2003-2004 school year, Andes and Heist’s students did a similar study of the New York restaurant industry’s community. A new group of students in the 2007-2008 year (students at Midtown West School stay with a teacher for a two-year term) will explore yet another segment of New York.
JOHN OLSON is an associate editor of TSR. He lives and works in Chicago, where he reviews theatre for TalkinBroadway.com.