Herald News • Published 03/23/08 • © 2008 Herald News (Passaic Co., NJ) / www.northjersey.com

Come along and listen to
What goes into putting on a high school musical

Victoria Waumans is perfect for the theater. "I like to be on any stage. I like to be the center of attention," the 16-year-old junior said one afternoon during rehearsal for the Clifton High School production of the musical "42nd Street."

Good thing, too, because as Peggy Sawyer, the fledgling chorus girl and female lead of the Tony Award-winning show, Victoria faces dizzyingly quick tap dances, soaring solos, even a bit of romance.

It's the last bit that makes her confidence sag, the one thing she admits makes her nervous: the kissing scene.

"It's sort of weird," she said. "I do have a boyfriend, but I'm not going to be kissing my boyfriend on a stage. It's Adam."

That's Adam Zaccone, 17, a senior and the male lead, Julian Marsh, a renowned and rather blustery director. During Act Two, the script calls for them to exchange (gulp) four kisses.

Victoria has talked it over with her boyfriend, Louie Torres, who assured her that he understands. And, after all, she said, "I'm still going to love Louie, even if I have to kiss another guy."

"You don't," pointed out Elizabeth Eisenmenger, the play's director and school's drama teacher. "Peggy does."

Managing her cast's romantic cold feet is a challenge for Eisenmenger, but hardly the only challenge in getting this production off the page and onto the stage. A high school musical is a complicated, time-consuming, exhausting affair, which she and her crew must pull off in three months.

There's dialogue to master and songs to learn.

There's the task of choosing a "do-able" play, raising money to supplement a slim budget, drilling dance steps into memory, lighting design, building sets, and – for the students – hours of rehearsal, around which they must still find time for homework, for boyfriends and girlfriends, for their lives.

A tough act. But all involved profess to love it.

Butterflies aplenty

Two-and-a-half weeks to opening night, and Eisenmenger was having a case of "the yips," those moments when her knees shake and she frets, "This will never happen" – this being the play.

Members of the 43-member cast had just finished a run-through of the musical number "Lullaby of Broadway." It did not go smoothly. The actors scrambled to remember their places on stage. Their chatter grew loud. Singers struggled to find the right key. Tricia Torley, 15, suggested the lack of music was at fault. She had a point: The musical accompaniment – a CD – had been lost. Eisenmenger's patience wore thin.

"Can we please go back and remember what we know?" she asked, sounding a bit vexed and tired.

An animated woman of 52 whose light brown hair shows wisps of gray, Eisenmenger can be stern when she needs to be. More often, she is supportive, thanking cast members for their time and acknowledging their courage to perform before an audience. She knows what it's like. A graduate of Clifton High, she's a veteran of two school musicals who went on to study English and theater in college.

Despite that, "the yips" attack at least once during every show.

And this one is no exception. Musicals are often more difficult to produce than standard plays, according to Christopher Hunt, director of marketing for the Cincinnati-based Educational Theater Association. In addition to acting, the cast must coordinate singing and dancing and working in time with a band. "42nd Street," the story of a Broadway cast in Depression-era New York City, has been especially challenging. For one thing, the furious tap dancing was new to many cast members.

At this rehearsal, Eisenmenger tried to polish several numbers before taking her cast to nearby Mario's restaurant for a fundraiser. The students would sing for their supper in return for 10 percent of the night's profits.

It was important that the Mario's event go well. Eisenmenger has a tight budget, about $8,000 from the Clifton school board for four teacher stipends — Eisenmenger, the school's dance teacher-cum-choreographer Lois Manzella, school band director Robert Morgan and choir director Barbara Novak. The musical's costs are likely to total around $20,000.

"The money should be the producer's problem," Eisenmenger said. "I don't have a producer."

Hunt put the average budget for a high school musical at around $10,000, excluding teacher salaries. Budgets can be much lower if financial support comes entirely from ticket sales and fundraising.

Mounting a high school musical requires paying for performance rights, including royalties to the licensing company, plus script and musical score rentals. Eisenmenger estimates that she's shelling out $4,000 to Tams-Witmark Music Library in New York for the show's three-performance run this weekend. There's also a $4,600 bill for the sound technician hired to fit students with microphones."He's a budget-buster," Eisenmenger said. "But if people can't hear, (then) really, what's the point?"

Luckily, a cadre of dedicated parents lend their time, ideas and talents as volunteer crew members. Ken Bender, whose freshman son Brian, 14, has four small roles, is one of Eisenmenger's most capable fundraisers. He helped put the Mario's event together, coordinated two previous fund drives and drove around town drumming up donations of fresh bagels to sell at the school. He estimated that he has put in 30 hours already. And, so far, the cast has raised about $2,350 through these, and other, efforts, Eisenmenger said. The Mario's event alone brought in about $400.

"I look at it as helping out the kids," Bender said. "I love kids. Adults I can give or take."

Laura Purdy, whose son Michael, a 16-year-old junior is a cast member, serves as several "costume mommies" who donate countless hours finding marked-down pink negligees for dancers, and 1930s-era ladies gloves and fabric they'll sew into outfits otherwise unavailable. Purdy, who works at a thrift store in Paterson, is borrowing men's suits from her job to outfit the boys.

For her, the perks are personal – she likes being part of her son's life. She also knows the school can't afford everything needed to pull off a professional-looking production.

"It's important for the kids to have pride in their work," she said.

Student-driven production

Unlike some schools that hire musicians, choreographers, set designers and even directors, Clifton's high school shows are locally grown and student-driven. The pit is composed of band and orchestra students; their conductor is band director Morgan.

Picking the right show means thinking strategically about the student population, even at a school like Clifton High with 3,400 students.

"Do I have the characters, the bodies? Do I have the students who could do this?" Eisenmenger asked herself. "You can't pre-cast, but you can't pick a play where no one can sing that song."

Tricia, who plays Maggie Jones, approved of the final decisions. Even though her part requires mercifully little dancing — "I have (danced before) but I'm just terrible at it" — she has had to learn the rudiments of tap, as did many fellow cast members unfamiliar with the shiny, clickety-clack shoes. That makes things interesting for Manzella, a sprightly 29-year-old with bouncy black hair and lots of energy.

"I choreograph for the masses," Manzella quipped. "The challenge is making everyone look good."

Her notes are densely written combinations of dance-formation drawings (lots of Xs that resemble football plays). Manzella puts the strongest tappers in front, relying on them to help her by helping their peers.

"It makes them more connected as a company," she said.

After the dancers and singers head home, close to 5 p.m., the stage crew descends for the next few hours, with wood planks, paint cans, brushes and power tools. Under the direction of set designer/school art teacher Julie Chrobak, about 15 students and two parent volunteers have been building stairs, a clock tower, make-up desk and backdrops that await working lights. The hardest part, Chroback said, is making a set that is simple and movable. This year has more scene changes than last, and all must be done silently.

Chrobak, also a scenic artist who paints movie and Broadway sets, has a budget of zero. "We beg, borrow and steal," she said.

That's where Ken Kida and Mike Romeo come in. Professional carpenters, they secured donations of building supplies from their companies.

They also donate their time and tools, even after long days at work that start at about 5 a.m. Kida's son, Matt, graduated from Clifton High and now pitches in with his dad. Romeo's daughter, Dominique, 16, is a junior and on the stage crew with her dad. Both say they get a lot out of it — including, Kida joked, "a jacuzzi in heaven."

Perseverance pays off

When the sawdust is cleared and tools stowed, the "42nd Street" cast gets back to practice, every day after school. As their debut approaches, though, the hours and pressures start to pile on. Still, by now, they're used to juggling their lives around the play — learning lines along with solving math equations.

It's all about managing limited free time efficiently. As a senior, Adam, the play's Julian Marsh, has gotten good at it, doing his homework during downtime in rehearsals.

"It gets really stressful," he said. "The only thing you can do is calm down and get things done."

And getting things done is what they do.

"This is the point where it gets tiring," said Marlenny Favre, 18, a senior member of the dance chorus, during a short break.

How does she manage? "Only because it's so fun," said Marlenny. "The whole Broadway thing is fun, the cheesy Broadway thing. If I had to do 'Hamlet,' I'd probably die."

The hard work is not without its rewards. Victoria, now poised and supremely confident, (kissing aside) credits her two high school plays with erasing her former timidity.

"I used to be very shy, you could say nerdy," Victoria said. "Now I have a ton of friends. I don't think I could revert back to being shy."

Schuyler Schrickel, 17, a senior who plays a Broadway diva in the play, said the best part of the production is the final week. The official term is "tech week," but everyone calls it "hell week." That's when Eisenmenger's yips get really bad.

"Even though you're cramming, you don't get in until midnight, but you're practicing for the real thing," Schuyler said. "That's when it becomes a team effort."

And once she's on stage, the little victories are the payoff.

"There's that one line when you practiced, or one scene you always messed up," Schuyler said. "But you get through it."

Educators say theater is an essential component of a child's education.

Mary Ann Baskinger, Clifton schools supervisor for visual and performing arts, said plays teach students responsibility, commitment and discipline. They are an outlet for talent and a synthesis of many academic subjects, including all of the arts — music, art, theater and dance. Michael Peitz, executive director of the Educational Theater Association, said there is a growing emphasis among employers for a creative workforce.

"Imagination and creativity keep us competitive in the world," he said. "The arts do that."

Break a leg

Sitting at Mario's, Eisenmenger relaxed a bit.

"I've never seen a show fail," she said, paraphrasing a line from the movie "Shakespeare in Love" to explain why not: "I don't know, it's a mystery." Somehow, 43 students eventually will turn into "one living, breathing unit," the final show. And nothing is harder than the aftermath, when all the work and all the excitement are over.

"The hardest week of the show," Eisenmenger said, "is the week after."

***

FAST FACTS

How much does it cost to put on a high school musical?

Paying for the rights to perform a play:

Clifton High School shelled out about $4,000 for the license to perform "42nd Street." But on average, schools pay between $700-$1,100 for the license. That also includes a standard set of materials — scripts, scores and orchestrations, according to Music Theater International, one of the country's biggest licensers of musical theater.

Costumes:

Elizabeth Eisenmenger, drama teacher and musical director at Clifton High School, said costume rentals cost about $38 per costume from Norcostco, a nationwide theatrical products company. She tries to keep her total rental costs at about $1,000.

Sound:

This is one of the big expenditures in Clifton, but Eisenmenger said it's worth the price for a quality production — about $4,600 for a sound technician to fit students with microphones.

Sets:

Varies, a lot. In Clifton, most materials, including gator board, masonite, plywood, lumber and paint, worth about $3,000, were donated. Set designer, and high school art teacher Julie Chrobak said she spent about $100 on props.

Lights:

Jill Stewart, branch manager for Barbizon Lighting in Chicago, said that for schools that only need supplies like light bulbs, gels, tape and rope, on average they will spend about $250.

Teacher salaries:

Eisenmenger and three of her colleagues will share about $8,000 from the Clifton Board of Education for their work on "42nd Street."

***

5 Photos by KEVIN R. WEXLER / Herald News

1. Kiara Santiago leads a troop of student dancers during a rehearsal for Clifton High School's much-anticipated production of the musical "42nd Street." Weeks of sweat, tears, laughter and fears are coming together and when the curtain parts, they stand alone.

2. Victoria Waumans, 16, puts her heart into building confidence and perfecting a song during a recent rehearsal. "I used to be very shy," says Victoria. "I don't think I could revert to being shy."

3. At Clifton High School, band director Robert Morgan helps student musicians fine-tune a number for the school's upcoming production of "42nd Street."

4. Students Selenny Fabre, gesturing at left, and her twin sister Marlenny Fabre, seated at center, do their homework between scenes during a visit to Mario's restaurant in Clifton.

5. Drama teacher and director Elizabeth Eisenmenger, left, discusses costuming with student Adam Zaccone, 17, who portrays Julian Marsh in the musical "42nd Street."

 

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