The 5th Avenue Awards: High School Musical Reunion

By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Education and Outreach

Since its launch in 2003, The 5th Ave Awards program has sought to recognize and celebrate the amazing work that is being done across the state in the world of high school musical theater. Each season, dozens of evaluators see hundreds of performances in every corner of Washington and in June, thousands of students come together for the culminating 5th Ave Awards ceremony.

Over the years, countless students have taken part in this educational program—and as a high school reunion (Romy and Michele’s!) is taking place on The 5th Ave mainstage, we’re taking the opportunity to also throw a 5th Ave Awards Reunion.

Recently, a handful of 5th Ave Awards alumni came together to share memories, updates, and advice for the Class of 2017.

MACARONI AND CHEESE, I DID IT!

On the night of the awards, many students are invited to receive recognition, but also to perform for their peers. Many memorable moments are made when they step onto the stage for the Awards ceremony the first time.

Justin recalls being a bit anxious: “Oh man, I remember being in the stairwell backstage with the other Lead Actor nominees waiting to perform our medley…And I was a nervous wreck. A couple of the nominees had been nominated before and performed before, but I had never performed on that stage in front of that many people. I just remember trying to absorb all of that confident energy and trying not to sweat off my fake mustache.”

“I remember saying to the girl next to me, ‘I’m gonna pee my pants!’” remembers Kirsten. “I didn’t pee my pants. Instead I walked out there, stood amongst my peers and sang my heart out to a full house of students and parents and teachers. I’d never felt anything like that before.”

Sarah remembers the moment she received her award. “When I got up there the only thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Macaroni and cheese, I did it!’  I was so shocked when I got up there—it was the first time I really thought I could do theater as a career.”

“I will never forget stepping onto The 5th Avenue stage for rehearsal that day,” says Lauren.  “It was the first of what would become many, many times. Since then, my new favorite moment comes every year when I get to stand backstage and listen to the roar of thousands of high school students supporting each other. The theater is never more alive than on the night of the Awards.”

LASTING EFFECTS

For many alumni, it is hard to believe that one night can have such a lasting impact on their lives.

“I was pretty dead set on pursuing a career in Opera—Classical Baritone,” says Jordan. “But the experience at these Awards is what started me down the path to choosing musical theater—which is one of the better decisions I have made in my short life. My experience being on that stage drove me to work until I could get back on it as a professional…It absolutely affected who I am today!”

It fueled my passion to celebrate weirdos,” says Justin with a laugh. “Of the Lead Actor nominees that year, I was definitely one of the weirdest.  But the support of the crowd—full of teachers and peers—made me feel welcome and encouraged me to lean into the weirdness. I think it’s safe to say that I haven’t stopped since.”

Brandon adds: “The 5th Ave Awards was truly my ‘in’ to The 5th Avenue Theatre where I would later intern during college, assistant direct, become the Executive Assistant to David Armstrong, then move up to Casting Director and Artistic Projects Manager… And then eventually—I’ve directed three shows on the mainstage. I participated in The Awards and less than 10 years later I was directing on the mainstage. I feel pretty lucky about that.”

“After The Awards I knew that a career in the arts was what I wanted to pursue,” says Kirsten. “After graduating from PLU, I moved to Seattle and immediately auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! I went on to play Ado Annie in that production, performed with their Adventure Musical Theater program, interned, worked in casting, helped with many education programs, participated in the New Works department in both administrative and performance roles and continued to perform in productions over the course of six years. For me, I know it started with The Awards, and feeling like this was a community to which I belonged and could grow from.”

WE NEED YOU

Allison is one of a handful of 5th Ave Awards alumni who are now 5th Ave Awards teachers with students of their own. She, like many of the alumni present, are constantly reminded of the value of musical theater in one’s life.

“Musical theater allows us to explore our own identities and step into the shoes of others. It’s a place where anyone can show up and hear ‘we need you.’ It’s a place where we can tell important stories as an ensemble and have conversations with people we might not have otherwise.”

Jared agrees: “To absorb someone else’s story, to see someone else’s craftsmanship, to ‘escape’ one’s life for a minute or two… It helps with the pain and sorrow of this world and teaches us that there are others aside from ourselves.”

Jordan appreciates how musical theater bridges generations: “It can touch on issues and it can reach audiences of all ages.  Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of me watching some musical with my grandmother. And I find that it brings a feeling of nostalgia to a lot of people I know.”

“Musical theater also teaches the art of collaboration,” Lauren adds.  “Whether students remain in musical theater or not, they have gained the insight that an incredible product takes the efforts of all types of individuals – each contributing their own talents and expertise.”

YOU ARE NOT WEIRD

At one point, the group begins to imagine what they would say if they could go back in time and offer advice to their former high school selves.

“Keep embracing who you are and what you love,” Brandon declares.  “And find the people that love it as much as you do.”

Kirsten adds, “You are not weird. You are gifted. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the joy you find in theater is silly. It is hard, absolutely. It is a hustle. But if you love it, if it brings you joy, do it. Work hard, never stop learning, never stop teaching.”

“Trust your work and never stray from what you find to be meaningful in this business,” says Jared.

“I think I would tell myself to have lots of fun, keep asking questions, and continue to explore as many sides of theater as possible,” says Allison.  “Going backstage at The 5th during the Awards was such a cool eye-opener…In college, I tried stage managing, directing, wardrobe, stage crew, and discovered applied theater—using theater for education, social justice, reminiscence work…My world opened up and theater became something so much bigger than I’d ever imagined.”


Heartfelt thanks to our title sponsor WELLS FARGO and to THE BOEING COMPANY and ALASKA AIRLINES for their additional support of this program.

Click here to learn more about The 5th Ave Awards and for a list of this year’s nominees.

An Evolving Friendship: An Interview with Robin Schiff and Barry Kemp

By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Education and Outreach

“The Blonde Leading the Blonde.”

This was the original tagline of the 1997 blockbuster film on which the musical Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is based. Since its premiere 20 years ago, countless fans and audience members (regardless of generation, gender or hair color) have inevitably asked themselves which of the two iconic blondes they identify with more.

Are you a Romy or are you a Michele?

When this question is posed to the bookwriter of the film and the musical, Robin Schiff, her immediate answer isn’t surprising.

“I’m both!” Schiff exclaims with a laugh. It is delightfully surprising when she begins to introduce a Freudian analysis of her two well-known characters. “They’re such naked representations of…” Schiff pauses momentarily. “Now, is it ego… or id?”

Robin Schiff with Barry Kemp

Barry Kemp, who produced the film and is a producer on the musical, can’t help but interrupt his friend and longtime colleague.

“Robin just gave you a great example of why she’s both,” he says. “Romy and Michele would say something exactly like that. Which is it, ego or id? They would use the terms, but they wouldn’t know which one was which.”

Schiff adds, “Romy and Michele like to sit indoors on a sunny day and watch a movie with a best friend. I like to do that. But they are so matter of fact about their thoughts and their desires—they’re almost like kids in that regard—they’re guileless. That is id, actually.”

Romy and Michele represents just one bullet point on an astounding list of Hollywood writing, producing and directing credits accumulated by Schiff and Kemp over the years. Yet the characters also represent a phenomenon that continues to amaze both their creator and their early proponent, especially when reflecting upon the origin of the two friends.

“They were like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Ladies Room,” Schiff explains. Her aptly titled play—which takes place in the ladies room of a Mexican restaurant called the Green Enchilada—first introduced the two loveable misfits in 1988.

“They were recognizable,” Schiff continues. “Their life started because I could hear them. And it’s the only experience that I’ve had of that—where I just heard these two characters talking in my imagination and decided to put them in different situations. And from their first entrance, they got laughter and applause—more or less as typical girls who you might encounter at a club…But they’ve evolved so much since then.”

Producer Barry Kemp, Bookwriter Robin Schiff and Composer and Lyricist Gwendolyn Sanford

Kemp adds, “One of the jokes in the original piece, and how [Robin] originally conceived of the two characters in [Ladies Room]—was that they were almost the same person. Each thought that the other one was the funniest person. They always laughed at each other—when no one else around them was laughing—and the two ladies were almost a single character. When [Robin] did the movie, she started finding what made them different. When we got to the musical—those differences became clearer—and more emotional. Not only are they different, they each have an Achilles heel that [Robin] has discovered. Now, they both have a vulnerability that they did not have in either the play or the movie.”

“We really looked to the essence of who Romy was,” explains Schiff. “She is a very insecure person who wanted to fit in. And it became clear that this wasn’t important to Michele. Michele wants to go to the reunion for fun. She goes along with all this other stuff because Romy says that it’s important.”

“For Michele it sounds like a fun time, and for Romy it’s a wake-up call,” adds Kemp.

Schiff continues, “In the movie they’re just kind of shocked that they hadn’t accomplished anything in ten years. It’s momentary. There isn’t any real panic bubbling up. But now in the musical, we get to explore this more. There’s a song called ‘Ten Years’ where we are really able to dig into Romy’s deeper fears. As a bookwriter, I find that a musical pushes you to ask yourself, ‘What’s really going on in this moment? What is she really feeling—and does that mean we’ll have a song or just a few lines of a scene?’ And we felt that that moment especially was a potential song with a lot of depth and a reason for her to sing her inner thoughts.”

With Romy and Michele now in their third iteration, both Schiff and Kemp are thrilled by the opportunity to continue discovering more of their story.

“I’m beside myself with excitement,” says Schiff. “I just think it’s going to be so much fun to go in and have time to dig in deeper and I’m looking forward to sharing that experience with the audience.”

When asked to explain Romy and Michele’s continuing appeal, Kemp offers this thought: “Everybody has an innate longing to have a best friend. Sometimes that best friend is a platonic friend and sometimes that best friend is a lover—sometimes male, sometimes female—but the fact is it doesn’t really matter. Every person wants to have somebody who gets them on a level that is not judgmental, someone who accepts flaws as well as attributes… And who see attributes that others do not. That’s what is at the core of this story.”

Schiff adds, “I think the other part of it is… they’re different. They’re weird. They’re the weird people at school and I think that’s one of the reasons for their longevity. So many of us have felt like the other. And so I think we relate to Romy and Michele. And we’d like to see them triumph.”

Behind the Curtain: In Rehearsal with Romy and Michele

We are so excited to be presenting our eighteenth new musical in a couple short weeks! Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is based on the cult film of the same name, but puts a whole new spin on it: a musical! This show will remind musical theater fans of Legally Blonde with its pop-rock new songs and its important messages of acceptance and friendship.

Scroll through the gallery to see behind-the-scenes photos from a rehearsal of Romy and Michele!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Don’t miss this world premiere musical, running June 8 to July 2 at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Find out more and purchase tickets here.

Special thanks to Jeff Carpenter Photography for these awesome rehearsal shots.

The 2017 Tony Award Nominations and The 5th!

By DAVID ARMSTRONG, Executive Producer and Artistic Director

As always, there are many connections this season between the shows and artists that are nominated for Tony Awards and The 5th Avenue Theatre.

Come From Away PC Matthew Murphy

310 - Ian Eisendrath, Caitlin Warbelow and Ben Power. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Topping the list, of course, is Best Musical nominee Come From Away.  We are so proud to have co-produced with Seattle Rep the developmental lab production of this show as part of our New Works Program — and there are many, many other 5th Avenue connections as well: The show’s Music Supervisor is our own Resident Music Director Ian Eisendrath, ably assisted by Chris Ranney, who is a regular at The 5th. Several long-time 5th Avenue favorites are featured in the cast including Kendra Kassebaum, Rodney Hicks, and Chad Kimball. Continue reading “The 2017 Tony Award Nominations and The 5th!”

Meet the Class of 1987 – The Ensemble

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Meet more of the class of 1987 with the A-Group, all of whom are making their 5th Avenue debuts! Tess Soltau (Christie Masters) Tess is taking on the role of lead mean […]

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Meet the last class of 1987 reunion-goers! Continue reading “Meet the Class of 1987 – The Ensemble”

Meet the Class of 1987 – The A-Group

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Meet more of the class of 1987 with the A-Group, all of whom are making their 5th Avenue debuts!

Continue reading “Meet the Class of 1987 – The A-Group”

Meet the Class of 1987 – Heather, Sandy and Toby

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Beginning today, we’re introducing you to the class of 1987. First up, Heather, Sandy and Toby!

Continue reading “Meet the Class of 1987 – Heather, Sandy and Toby”

Musical Round Up: Musicals Led by Young Actors

By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

In The Secret Garden, the lead character Mary Lennox is played by a young woman, usually 12 or under. In this video round up, we’re celebrating other shows led by young actors. Continue reading “Musical Round Up: Musicals Led by Young Actors”

10 of Our Favorite Female Friendships

By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and in anticipation of our upcoming musical production of the same name, we’re celebrating some of our favorite female friendships, both in pop culture and in real life.

Oprah and Gayle

Gayle is Oprah’s right-hand woman. The Hamilton to Oprah’s George Washington. Their friendship has survived over 30 years, through marriages and divorces and kids and talk shows and magazines and basically everything. The fact that there are still rumors about whether they are in a more-than-platonic relationship (which both of them have stressed they would be super open about if they were “together,” or, as Oprah put it in an interview, “All my stuff is out there. People think I’d be so ashamed of being gay that I wouldn’t admit it? Oh please”) just emphasizes how important it is to talk about and celebrate non-adversarial, platonic female friendships.

Continue reading “10 of Our Favorite Female Friendships”

The Secret Garden and Frances Hodgson Burnett

By GRETCHEN H. GERZINA for D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company

Few people realize that The Secret Garden, the book that most readers associate with Frances Hodgson Burnett, was only one of the 53 novels she wrote and published, and that most of her books were for adults, not children. Although she had a lifetime love for children and gardens, she would be amazed to know that this book, which began as a magazine serial late in her life, is the one for which she is most remembered today— even though it was one that was closest to her heart.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s love affair with gardens began when she was a small child living in Manchester, England. In 1852, when she was just three, her family moved to St. Luke’s Terrace, which backed onto fields owned by the Earl of Derby, leading Frances to recall it later in life as the “back garden of Eden.” She remembered it as a place of gardens and perpetual summer, where a small child could daydream beneath the trees and beside the flowers, ignoring the industrial city that surrounded this suburb of light and air. There were farms and country cottages close by and she became friendly with a family of market gardeners who kept pigs. Just a year later, however, her father, Edwin Hodgson, died, and his widow and five children embarked upon a decade of moving house, each time to a slightly less desirable neighborhood. Each move took Burnett further and further away from gardens, until in 1865, her mother decided to make the riskiest move of all: to join her rogue of a brother, who boasted of his accomplishments in America, in the American South during the last months of the Civil War. There the Hodgson family found itself ensconced in an unexpected place: a log cabin in a very small town outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. There, but for the generosity of their neighbors, they would have starved.

FHB

Their financial difficulties were quite real, but young Fanny (a name she quickly abandoned) found Tennessee a true Garden of Eden after the pollution of Manchester and the smuts that floated down like snow from its factory chimneys.

She had read in the back of ladies’ magazines that they paid money for stories and, having invented them for her friends back in England, she thought she might take a chance at being paid to write. The first story she sent came back with comments, but instead of revising she mailed it again to another magazine. The editor was puzzled and surprised to find an accomplished work with an English setting coming out of Tennessee; was she English or American? That evening she sat down and wrote a second one for him. Both stories were accepted immediately, and with the check that arrived she launched a career that saw her eventually become America’s highest-paid woman writer. She was only 18 and none of her work was ever rejected.

By 1886, Frances had married a Tennessee doctor, had two sons and had written the blockbuster novel Little Lord Fauntleroy—her 18th novel, which made her hugely famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Now as Frances Hodgson Burnett she had money of her own, and bought, in cash, a 17-room house in Washington, D.C. From the moment of its first appearance as a serial in Saint Nicholas Magazine to its publication as a book a year later in 1886, Fauntleroy became a household name. Largely forgotten or ridiculed today, it was the Harry Potter of its day. The image of a sturdy and very masculine little boy in a velveteen jacket shot around the world and was to haunt her son Vivian, from whose photograph it was taken, for the rest of his days. The story—and the plays and films it spawned—started a fashion craze that mothers loved and boys hated, as they were forced into wide lace collars and long curls, probably not helped when girls were always given the stage and film role.

Even though writing was how she had to make her living, it also enabled her to travel, buy beautiful clothes and furnish houses in England and America. However, Burnett was not only a writer of novels and stories, she was also a producer of plays. Thirteen of her works appeared in West End theaters in London and on Broadway, generally written and produced by her. Prescient enough to understand the increasing role of movies, she later built clauses guaranteeing her the film rights to her books. It’s fascinating, therefore, that The Secret Garden did not become a stage musical or a popular film until late in the twentieth century, although apparently a now-lost film was made in 1919, five years before Burnett’s death.

 

Quote

Although writing and gardening could not shield her from life’s tragedies, they did help her get through some of her life’s greatest sorrows. When her 16-yearold son Lionel tragically died of tuberculosis in her arms in Paris in 1890, she had his casket covered in violets. When her second marriage ended—a marriage that she was probably blackmailed into by a young English doctor and aspiring actor ten years her junior—she and her sister Edith retreated to a house that would become Frances’s most cherished home: Maytham Hall, in Rolvenden, Kent, which she first leased after her divorce from her American husband.

Rumors always surrounded her and there were plenty of reasons for her wanting to escape. From the time that Little Lord Fauntleroy first made her famous, she was constantly in the press and in the public eye. She crossed the Atlantic 33 times in her lifetime, and whenever one of the ships she traveled on docked, she was met by a crowd of newspaper and magazine reporters who wanted to know about her difficult health, her latest book and her love life. When she filed for divorce, her lawyer made sure she was safely on board a ship heading for England before serving the papers. Gardens were, for her, a retreat.

At Maytham, she had set up an outdoor study, with a table and chair under the trees near the rose garden, and wrote each morning in the company of a robin that grew tame, the later inspiration for Mary Lennox’s robin in The Secret Garden, which was, in fact, written in America. When she moved back to America for good she built a beautiful house with spacious gardens in Plandome on Long Island, and next door built a cottage for her surviving son Vivian and his family. As she grew older she spent her winters in Bermuda with her sister Edith and kept a full-time gardener.

Burnett claimed that The Secret Garden was the first children’s story to appear in an adult magazine. The first installment made its appearance in The American Magazine late in 1910. She wrote to her friend Ella Hepworth Dixon after the story’s serial publication that “it was our Rose Garden as it would have been locked up for years and years and years—and some hungry children had found it. You cannot think how everyone loves that story. People write to me with a sort of passion of it.”

The Secret Garden begins and ends in gardens, one a garden of death in India, and the other a garden of revitalization and resurrection in England. Burnett believed to the end of her own life in the healing and resurrecting power of gardens. The last chapter of The Secret Garden is called “In the Garden,” and the last thing that Burnett wrote, on her deathbed, was a magazine article by the same name. As in The Secret Garden, she always saw gardens as places of healing and return to health.

After she died, the little article was republished as a book, with watercolor pictures and photographs of her own gardens at Plandome. It ends with the words that have come to symbolize her other life’s work: “As long as one has a garden one has a future,” she wrote, “and as long as one has a future one is alive.”


Artwork by Becky Kelley.

This article originally appeared in ASIDES, the production program and publication of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Visit ShakespeareTheatre.org/Asides to learn more.

Click here to read more about and purchase tickets to The Secret Garden.