By RORY LANCE
Directing My Fair Lady at Edward R. Murrow High School produced one of the most poignant memories of my teaching career. This show demands sophistication and elegance: it’s always a challenge to students who have only known sneakers, jeans, and graphic tees. But luckily, J.D. was there, tall and handsome, with the most resonant speaking voice I had ever heard on any teenager. I had found my Henry Higgins.
Sometimes when young people are faced with an overwhelming challenge they will stop trying so they won’t have to endure failure. I think this was the case with J.D., a transfer student from a broken home. So one day when he was having a particularly difficult rehearsal and frustration was shutting him down, I called him off the stage and said, “There is absolutely no one that I want to see more in the role of Henry Higgins than you. Acting is a challenging art form, but one that is never done alone, always in collaboration. And that’s what I’m here for.” This gave him the confidence to turn in a wonderful performance.
J.D. was superb in the role and I will always remember a colleague coming up to share her reaction. “You had him make an entrance down the auditorium aisle, and he stopped just where I was sitting. I had been watching this extraordinary performance for two hours and when I looked up at him I noticed there was peach fuzz on his cheek. He was just a kid! I was absolutely dumbfounded.”
But the memory I referred to earlier came the weekend after Mother’s Day. J.D.’s mother had flown in from California to see him in our final performance. She arrived just before curtain, so wasn't able to greet her son until after the show. I was lucky to be at just the right place and time to witness their meeting. I spotted J.D., still in makeup and costume, walking down the backstage hallway carrying a little delayed Mother’s Day gift bag. His mom was practically running toward him, both of them sobbing tears of joy. I watched them hug for an eternity. Divorce might have postponed their Mother’s Day, but didn't make it any less loving.
Remembering that heartwarming reunion has furnished me with comfort and joy all my life, but there was one more marvelous event connected to this production. About a week after we closed, I read that Kitty Carlisle Hart was going to present her one-woman show at the New Victory Theater for one night only. I decided to get a ticket, but my true motivation was to see if I would be able to pass along a copy of the video from my production of My Fair Lady to her. There she was, at 87, singing all the songs she had made famous and sharing stories of her legendary career. After the performance I sought out the house manager and gave him my packet with a letter, a program, and the VHS tape of my production, which he promised to deliver to Miss Hart.
About two weeks later I was sitting with my principal about to discuss the next theatrical season when his secretary came in with an envelope: “Take a look at the return address!” It was from Miss Hart herself. I opened the letter and read it aloud to everyone around the conference table:
(I hope it’s Rory Schwartz)
I enjoyed the tape of “My Fair Lady”. I thought you did a masterful job. Thank you so much for the performance. The cast was very good & beautifully rehearsed.
Kitty Carlisle Hart
I had made contact with one of the few remaining witnesses to My Fair Lady's creation — and all because I had decided to become a high-school drama teacher.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen 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.