By RORY LANCE
In 2006, I directed a production of Gypsy at Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School. There was one young actress in the show whose story has gone on to define for me what teaching is all about.
The auditions for our fall musical always introduced us to the new crop of talent that would be with us for the next four years. Julie Radin was one of those new kids, a talented dancer and singer with a stunning look and joyful personality, both on and off stage. I cast her in the ensemble of our production of Oklahoma! and when she did her solo dance turn in “Many A New Day,” she lit up the stage with charm and talent. I had so much faith in her that when one of our Dance Hall Girls in the Act I ballet injured her ankle and was unable to perform, I put Julie right into that role. In only two days she was as ready as the other dancers who had been rehearsing for months.
Julie continued to be a great team player through show after show. Then, in the fall of her junior year, she gave a powerhouse audition for our production of Gypsy and was cast in the renowned role of Tessie Tura, the stripper with a “heart of gold” who mentors Gypsy Rose Lee through her first-ever burlesque turn. Julie finally got to play her first principal role. In the ensemble or now playing a lead, Julie brought the same dedication and enthusiasm to her work. That’s why I was so surprised when she started missing rehearsals.
Our rule was that if you were not able to make after-school rehearsal for any reason, you had to get word to me. If rehearsals were going to maintain a semblance of worth, I obviously needed to know who I was going to have that day. “Julie went home sick.” “Julie had a doctor’s appointment.” “Julie left a message with the office.” These were the messages I was given daily, regarding a student who had always maintained the highest standards. When Julie would come in the next day, she would assure me that she had been suffering from some virus, the doctor had prescribed some-such medication, and she was now feeling fine. Then the next day she would be out again.
I finally felt it necessary to call Julie's home and speak to her mother. “Hello, Mrs. Radin, I’m wondering what is going on with Julie and all the missed rehearsals?” “Mr. Schwartz, I’m so sorry for taking her out of rehearsals so much, but the doctors just can’t seem to find what the trouble is. I am taking her to a specialist and hopefully he will find the problem.” “Well, the show opens next week and I just need to know that I can count on her.” “Oh, don’t worry about Julie. She will be on that stage no matter what.” “Well, I hope everything works out well at the doctor tomorrow, bye.” "Thank you, I’ll update you when we get back.”
The next day Julie was full of energy. She said the specialist had prescribed some new medicine and she was feeling great. We were able to complete our final week of rehearsal without any further incident.
Opening night came. Well, actually opening day: we always began the run with a Wednesday matinee to maximize our biggest crowd, the neighborhood senior citizens. Julie gave a stellar performance as Tessie -- wise, warm, funny and flawless. That is, until her final scene. At the end of the play, just before Gypsy makes her first star entrance at the Wichita Opera House, Tessie gives her a fur and wishes her good luck. But Julie was not onstage for the scene. Another actor responded quickly and placed the fur on Gypsy himself. Luckily, at Edward R. Murrow, you were never in it alone. I had capable colleagues minding the store backstage, so I could remain out front and take critical notes for our first public performance. But I knew something must have gone terribly wrong.
As soon as the curtain came down on what was truly a glorious performance, I made a beeline backstage, where I found my colleague Daria McCloud looking like the victim of a Mack truck hit-and-run. “What happened to Julie?” “She came offstage after her next-to-last scene and collapsed. We gave her some water and she came to, but she was in a lot of pain and we were afraid to move her. So I called 911 and the ambulance just now drove away with her. Her parents are already on their way to the hospital.” I was, of course, most concerned about Julie, but there was nothing I could do until I was able to speak to her mother later.
In the meantime, I had to guarantee that we were ready to go for the next three days. My shows were usually choreographed by a dance teacher in the physical education department, but since Gypsy is not a heavy dance show, I decided to work with a talented student who had done other shows with us. Amanda Fogarty was at my side as we heard the news about Julie. She had staged all the stripper numbers, including “You Gotta Get A Gimmick.” She knew all the moves -- but not the dialogue. My instruction to her was simple. “Amanda, you need to go home now, learn Tessie’s lines and be ready to go on tomorrow night." Young actors are amazing. The lack of experience makes them unaware that what you are asking is impossible, so they just do it. Amanda went on as Tessie for the remainder of the run, and was indeed incredible.
After our opening night photo call, I finally got home and called Mrs. Radin. “How is Julie?” “Not good, Mr. Schwartz. Julie has liver cancer. They found a tumor on her liver the size of a tennis ball. She is going into surgery tomorrow and will most likely have to have chemo and radiation treatments. She won't be in school for the next six months. She is concerned about the show.”
Knowing Julie, how would she not be concerned about the show? “Tell her not to worry, Amanda will be going on for her. All she needs to do is get well.” We spoke for a while as I tried my best to console her, but I was grasping at straws, trying anything to possibly give her some hope. We spoke many times over the next six months. If you know of any parents who are facing the challenge of a seriously ill child, be there for them, because they are dealing with pain that is beyond comprehension and need all the support they can possibly get.
We were all terrified for Julie. But there was one great source of strength and determination that we hadn't counted on. It was the patient.
Rory Lance is the stage name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre. This piece was adapted from his book My Year In Vaudeville. Edward R. Murrow is so well regarded for its theatre department that it was granted permission to stage the first high-school production of The Producers, about which you will read in Part 2.