By RORY LANCE
Throughout the spring semester, while the theatre department was busy working on our production of The Pirates Of Penzance, Julie Radin was going in and out of the hospital dealing with a series of setbacks and successes in her treatment. She was continually keeping up with her studies by way of a tutor and working hard not to fall behind.
Julie did make it to a performance of Pirates. She was swollen-looking with a scarf covering her head, very different from the girl who had sparkled in her solo moment in "Many A New Day.” Had it been that long ago? I knew from my own experience -- my mother’s heart surgery in particular -- that you have to fight to get to the other side of illness. But Julie's spirit was as high as ever. She was beaming with pride for the success of all her friends as they conquered our school’s first attempt at operetta.
Julie came back to school in the fall with a precious note in hand: her doctor told us that she was in complete remission and was strong enough to participate in all aspects of the theatre program. Our first production that year was Evita, and Julie gave a wonderful audition for the role of Eva Peron. But we were hesitant to assign her the demanding schedule and responsibility of the lead. We decided it would be best to put her in the ensemble, see how she coped, and if all went well, consider her for a more challenging role in the spring. Julie was delighted just to be back on stage rehearsing anything.
Just before our Thanksgiving break, we were informed that Edward R. Murrow High School would be allowed to mount the first high-school staging of The Producers the following spring. This was something we had been manipulating and maneuvering to happen ever since the Broadway production had closed after its record-breaking six-year run. The Producers would be Julie’s final show at Murrow, and I hoped I would be able to cast her in the role of Ulla and give her the opportunity to stand center stage and bring down the house. After all she had been through, after all her family had been through, after all our whole school community had been through; didn’t we all deserve the opportunity to witness a personal triumph for this amazing young woman?
Auditions were scheduled in early February for a week of performances the following May. In all my years of directing, I had never witnessed such excitement and anticipation. After more than twenty years spent not showing any emotion which would indicate my opinion of a particular audition, I was finding it hard to suppress my feelings about Julie. I couldn’t cross my fingers, so as Julie began, I crossed my toes. I needn’t have had any concern; she was flawless. I was able to cast her not because she had won a battle that no young person should ever have to face, but because she gave a brilliant audition.
A few weeks before our opening Julie turned eighteen, and we thought we should have some sort of celebration with the cast. We decided to surprise Julie, and her parents brought in an extremely large birthday cake; after all, it was for a cast of 64. We put the cake on stage and closed the curtains. She came into the auditorium chatting with her friends, all excited for that day’s rehearsal, when Bialystock and Bloom got up on stage and asked for everyone’s attention. The curtain was opened and we all began to sing “Happy Birthday.” Julie was thrilled and delighted.
We all took photos of Ulla cutting her cake with Bialystock and Bloom on either side. I invited Julie’s mom to say a few words; very quickly she broke down and asked me to speak instead. I looked at my cast of 64 vibrant, happy, enthusiastic New York City public school students and said, “A year ago, Julie had a very different sort of birthday at Sloan Kettering Hospital. Had you asked her then what she wanted most, it would have been to be healthy so she could be back with her friends rehearsing a play. Well, what a difference a year makes. Today Julie’s wish has come true, and it is something she worked very hard to achieve. Today should help us to put things in perspective and not take the good things we are given for granted, for they are the very same things that many others are wishing for.” I believe at that point we all had a good cry.
Julie was remarkable in the role of Ulla. And when she stood center stage at the end of her number “When You Got It, Flaunt It,” the audience went wild. Many had no idea of the journey it took to get to this moment, but those who did applauded not only for her great talent, but also for her incredible perseverance.
At one point, Mrs. Guacello, the mother of our Max Bialystock, mentioned that she had a friend who was a reporter and might be interested in writing a story about the show and Julie. Of course I said no problem, but because my mind and “to-do” list were so cluttered, I thought nothing more about it. Then before one of the performances, she introduced me to the reporter. I was not even sure what newspaper he was connected with, maybe a Brooklyn neighborhood publication. I pointed the way to Julie as I ran about dealing with some sort of dire emergency, most likely a missing button or fallen hem.
After our final Saturday night performance, I got home very late and stopped at the 24-hour deli around the corner for a midnight snack. As I walked in, I noticed the stack of Sunday papers ready to sell, and lo and behold what did I find as I turned the first page of the New York Daily News? There on page two was a giant photograph of my production of The Producers, a big beautiful photo of Ulla flanked by Bialystock and Bloom with the headline “When You Beat It, Flaunt It!” Our visitor had been a feature reporter for the Daily News, who wrote a full-page article on Julie and her yearlong struggle to make it back to the stage of Edward R. Murrow High School. If ever a story deserved to be told, it was this one.
Six years later, after Julie had graduated from Cornell University and I had long since retired, we found ourselves cast in a production of West Side Story. Julie was a featured dancer and I played Doc. The best part of each performance was standing in the wings watching Julie dance. I couldn’t help but recall the year she went from collapsing backstage to shining center stage. I thought how with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of love and support, sometimes things work out well -- and even real life can have a happy ending.
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.