By RORY LANCE
It was always exciting at Edward R. Murrow High School when we were holding auditions for our musical theatre productions. This year would be no exception, since I had announced the show would be Gypsy.
I was lucky enough to work at a school that fully supported the arts. The theatre program was the jewel in the crown of our renowned arts curriculum. Our principal loved wearing the hat of a Broadway producer, calling meetings about budget and design... but mostly about budget. And for a New York City public school principal, he was pretty open to all types of material; very seldom would he put on the hat of a Hays Office bureaucrat. I always felt obligated to bring him choices that would challenge the students but avoid putting him in an awkward position with their parents. When I mentioned to a teacher friend that I had chosen the burlesque-inspired Gypsy for our fall musical, she said, “My principal would never tolerate that choice.” I replied, "That says more about him than it does about Gypsy.”
The first day of auditions was designed to thin down the numbers. A Murrow musical might feature as many as sixty in the company, easily double the cast typically used in a professional production. We wanted to give as many students as possible the chance to participate without sacrificing our ability to artfully stage the show. Sometimes as many as 150 students auditioned for the ensemble; after that first phase, about eighty names usually remained on our callback list.
The girls were sent into the auditorium to dance for the choreographer while the boys were left to sing a song of their choice for me in the music room: then we'd reverse. While we could be more selective with our many talented girls, far fewer boys tended to audition. We were willing to cast anyone who didn’t bump into anything or shatter glass when he sang. After about a dozen minimally talented boys, a young man named Ben Krieger got up. He was tall and strikingly handsome, with a mop of jet-black hair. He had never auditioned for us before, but when he sang “Marry Me A Little” by Stephen Sondheim in an absolutely stunning natural baritone, all the air in the room suddenly stopped. He had it all. What a find! I looked at my colleagues at the audition table. We each had that same raised-eyebrow expression.
After the auditions, I asked Ben about himself. He was an incoming junior who had spent his first two years of high school at a Yeshiva, which he had hated. He begged his mother to let him transfer to a public high school and after much debate and cajoling, she finally acquiesced. It is always good form not to show any reaction at these auditions, for the slightest smile may be interpreted by an eager young actor as a guarantee of being cast. But I had no doubt that this new discovery would be performing in Gypsy.
After the second day of auditions, which consisted of singing from the score and reading from the script, I was ready to post the cast list. Since Ben was new to the theatre program and I had yet to learn his level of experience and commitment, I decided to cast him in the ensemble. He would be a Farm Boy in the first act and play the character role of Cigar in Act II: this would prepare him for bigger and better things to come. (The first rule of posting a high-school cast list is to do it when no one is around, then stay out of sight for the rest of the day. The screams of delight from those who are satisfied, mixed with the cries of pain from those you’ve disappointed, make the teachers’ cafeteria an oasis of solitude.)
The next morning, there was a knock on my office door. It was Ben, wearing a look of utter disappointment. “I can’t do the show,” he said. He explained that his family were very observant Jews and since we performed on Friday and Saturday during the Jewish Sabbath, his mother would not allow him to participate. “Ben, do you want me to call home and speak to your mom?” “If you want to, but it’s not going to do any good. She’s pretty decided on this.”
That afternoon I called Mrs. Krieger, who said she'd been over all this with Ben, and it would be impossible for him to perform on the Sabbath. “I understand how you feel, but you can’t expect a secular public school to exist on the same schedule as a religious one. He transferred here but he can't take part in the activities that we have to offer. He’s a very talented boy. I hope you realize that.” “Yes, I know how disappointed he is.” “Then will you do me one favor? Last June we graduated a boy who was active in our program, and he also came from a very observant family. They were able to balance both sides of this issue and today he is a freshman at...Brandeis University! Would you let his mother give you a call?” Brandeis, the ultimate goal of every Jewish mother, was my secret weapon, and of course she agreed.
Amy Praeger had been the president of our parents’ organization, and her son Shai played the leads Curly in Oklahoma! and Cliff in Cabaret. I will never forget his entrance in Oklahoma! from the back of the house. When the spotlight caught him as he began “Oh What A Beautiful Morning,” the kid absolutely sparkled. He was sensational, creating just the right balance of robustness and naivete. The following year, Cabaret challenged him in a profound way: the Holocaust-themed play combined with his devout Jewish upbringing to produce a much more soul-searching experience than the average high school actor has to face. At one point after a particularly intense rehearsal, his father told me Shai had come home and said, “I wish I could still be playing Curly.” He was wonderful in Cabaret, and even though it may not have been as much sheer fun, it offered him something of value. Amy talked to Mrs. Kreiger, then called me back to say, "I think she is almost there, but she has one reservation. She doesn’t want him to be miked.” “That’s impossible!” “I know. I told her that, but she wants to speak with you. Be gentle, we almost have her.”
“Mrs. Krieger, you have to understand that I am selling tickets for a show that the audience expects to see and...hear. Now, Ben does not physically do anything with the microphone. A technician turns it on and off. It’s like using the Shabbos elevator.” Silence. “Mrs. Krieger, our Saturday matinees are almost totally populated by senior citizens. These people were the audiences of Broadway shows for years and years. But these days they are very hesitant to go too far from home, and our shows and the children who perform in them are their only connection to the live theatre that they loved and supported their whole lives." Silence. "And most of them are Jews.” The next day Ben came running into my office and asked, “What did you say to her?” When I told him, his reply was, “Man, you’re good!”
Ben went on to give brilliant performances for the next two years. He played Che in Evita and the Police Sergeant in The Pirates Of Penzance before culminating his time with us as Roger De Bris in the first-ever high school production of The Producers. Mrs. Krieger spent two hours every night watching her son gallivant around the stage as Adolf Hitler, and she -- to quote Max Bialystock -- “loved every minute of it!”
But the story does not end there. Prior to auditions for The Producers, one of my students, Abbie Mandel, told me how he would love to try out but couldn’t because we perform on the Sabbath. Later that week at another school performance, who should I spot in the audience but both Mrs. Mandel and Mrs. Krieger! I went over to Mrs. Krieger and asked, “I wonder if you could do me a favor?” So...Abbie appeared in The Producers, and he and his mom also “loved every minute of it!”
I don't believe Shai ever acted again after Cabaret. But I am happy to say he eventually became a doctor!
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.