Time and Place: Monday, 6 p.m., the auditorium of a high school in a medium-sized Midwestern city.
Atop a hill on the east side of Pittsburgh, Taylor Allderdice High School is quiet as twilight descends upon the city. Most of the students, teachers, and staff cleared out of the mammoth building hours ago. For about 20 students and one teacher, though, the 6 o'clock hour marks the beginning of a long day's journey into night. The terra-cotta, cream, and slate blue auditorium is abuzz with adolescent chatter as the teenagers await the arrival of their leader--Ken Lutz, music teacher, orchestra conductor, and moving force behind the school's annual musical. Some of the teenagers busy themselves with tasks. Idle without him, others gab with their peers, wolf down food, or worry out loud about what they should be doing or where the tardy Mr. Lutz could be. Then, he strides through the side door, and all the unfocused energy is directed at Lutz, who was waylaid on his travels around the city to pick up lighting and sound equipment.But now the waiting for Lutz is over; it's on with the show. All across the land, the advent of spring means it's time for the student musical. Allderdice is no exception. Here, the student musical has a long tradition--one emblazoned in broad strokes of paint on every nook and cranny backstage with the names of cast and crew and the long list of productions: "Peter Pan," '67, "The Music Man," '68 and '94, "Guys and Dolls," '75 and '87.
But they were purely senior-class productions until Lutz opened them up to the whole school seven years ago to involve more students and enlarge the talent pool.
At that time, he produced "Gypsy." This year, it's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" from the unfinished Charles Dickens' novel of the same name.
And tonight is the technical rehearsal for the show that opens in three days, a show that Lutz started working on right after Veterans Day.
"Kim, can you hear me?" Junior Megan Holly is murmuring softly into her microphone on the stage.
"No," replies Kim Pollak, who is standing in front of the orchestra pit. After some fiddling with the equipment and the passage of a few minutes, Pollak, a freshman, exclaims loud enough that a mike isn't necessary, "It works, it works!"
A bit later, Stacey Sandor, a senior, seeks out Holly. "You have to show me how to use the strobe light," she says.
While the musicians and dancers and actors have all been rehearsing for weeks, members of the lighting and sound crew are first learning their crafts because Lutz could only afford one week's equipment rental.
He estimates the cost of mounting "Drood" at $6,000, about $1,700 alone to pay the royalties.
"We get zero to put on this play," Lutz says. His task is to balance the integrity of the show with the revenue from ticket sales and program advertising--a job made somewhat easier because he is both producer and director. "We don't have too many arguments," quips Lutz.
Pollak can't figure out how she is going to carry all the wineglasses on stage by herself for the dinner party scene.
Holly tells her to ask other crew members. "Say, 'Excuse me. Will you help me?' "
"What if they're not feeling generous?"
"Then find me or find Leanne," says Holly, referring to stage manager Leanne Crosbie.
"I have this feeling I'm going to screw up," says Pollak.
"Don't think that way," cautions Holly. "If you do, then you will."
It takes 10 of them to hoist the mausoleum for the pivotal cemetery scene onto the stage. So heavy and bulky is it that the crew eventually decides to move it behind a "flat"--a piece of scenery--rather than off to the wings.
The students got help building the mausoleum and a steam engine, as well as some other props and scenery, from James Morandini, one of the few teachers at the 1,800-student school who helps with the production.
Lutz hired a choreographer and a pianist who doubles as a vocal instructor and has the assistance of a student teacher.
He also has the services of his 81-year-old father, who helps build sets and supervises. And this year, for some reason Lutz hasn't been able to fathom, he has a lot more parent support than usual.
Most of the rest is left to the students and Lutz, a jack-of-all-trades, a man for all seasons. No job is too big or too small. He even tightens the bolts on auditorium seats.
"We have a lot of respect for our teacher," says Philip Cohen, a junior on the sound crew. "If it were another teacher, I may not have done it."
Even though the rehearsal is strictly for the technical crew, other students show up as well.
"My percussionist is here tonight," Lutz says of junior Matt McPherson. "He doesn't need to be. That shows an awful lot of maturity."
Robin Eatman's here, too. He plays John Jasper, a lead in the play.
Lutz views the production as a major educational experience. "There is a tremendous amount of responsibility. They learn cooperation. They learn a lot about putting their own egos aside for the good of the group," says Lutz, who has taught music in the district for 26 years, the last nine of them at Allderdice.
One student asks Lutz to intervene with her track coach because an upcoming meet interferes with the production. The teacher says the coach is a reasonable man, but he also reminds his student that she has to take responsibility for the commitments she makes.
Lutz, in fact, requires cast members to sign an agreement that they will not miss a rehearsal unless they missed school for a legitimate reason, such as illness. "That means making choices," says Lutz. "That's a huge accomplishment. That is the most important skill we learn in our everyday lives."
The students, in turn, devote hours after school for months on end. In recent weeks, Megan Holly has been there from 2:30 to 9 each night and from 1 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
The equipment set up, the scenery and props in their proper places, it's time to rehearse. But first, Lutz sits the crew down on stage and runs them through a checklist of safety procedures. They talk about flashlights, fire extinguishers, and bandages. And they designate a student to call for emergency services in the event the need arises. "One other thing," he reminds them. "You have to be very serious about this."
Not only do they have to be prepared to help the cast and the audience during an emergency. The crew members work with high-voltage equipment, lift and push heavy objects, and run around in the dark with props.
Crosbie, a show veteran in her fourth year, takes over. "We should run this as though this were the show. O.K. Are we ready to try this?"
Lutz settles down in the orchestra pit, puts on his headset and talks to the lighting crew in the balcony. The auditorium is darkened. He reads the script, pausing periodically to cue the lighting crew or speak to Crosbie, who's in the wings.
"Take the lights down to half."
"Leanne, I'm still toying with this idea of having the house curtain open. What do you think?"
"Pam," he addresses the lighting chief--Leanne Crosbie's younger sister--"when the song is over, we're going to keep the spotlight on the Chairman."
A piece of scenery takes forever to drop. A spotlight won't stay on; the light beams waver when shone on performers. Some microphones squeal with feedback; others are silent. Dozens of details emerge. Lutz orders the unfinished wooden undercarriage of the steam engine painted black.
Shortly after 10 p.m., the run-through is complete. "I think we're going to be all right. If we have to do another tech workout, we'll do it.
"O.K., we need to get some rest."
Time and Place: Tuesday, 8 a.m., the same high school auditorium. About 100 students, the director and choreographer, and a sprinkling of parents are present.
Today, the students are officially released from their classes to apply the finishing touches to the musical. Lutz doesn't want to waste a moment.
The students are told to report by 7:30, and by 8 a.m., the entire cast, crew, and orchestra--about 100 in all--is rolling.
The crew is dressed in black to blend into the background. But many of the cast members are not in costume because the adults who oversee costuming haven't all arrived. Throughout the morning, the jeans and T-shirts give way to crinoline and top hats.
Some of the mikes are still squealing, but all the lights are working. The street scene drops quickly into place, as Lutz requested last night. Miraculously, it all seems to be meshing, but of course it's hard work--not miracles--that has made the crew learn they cannot succeed in this business without really trying.
The Act I rehearsal is not as smooth for the cast. Lutz calls them together to go over the lapses.
"Durdles, these keys? What keys?" Lutz asks of the actor whose lines spoke of keys that were nonexistent on stage. "Who's going to get them for you?
"Chrisparkle, not loud enough," he advises--counsel that he gives to others as well. "It's like you're having a conversation with yourself."
While most producers select a show and then cast it, Lutz waits until after the auditions before he chooses the musical for the year. Only then does he have a feel for the talent and what show he can match with it.
"Drood," which opened on Broadway in 1985, is a mystery that writer, lyricist, and composer Rupert Holmes crafted in vaudevillian fashion. Lovers Rosa Bud and Edwin Drood are separated when Drood disappears. Was he the victim of foul play? Could his uncle John Jasper, a man with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality who is smitten with Rosa Bud, be behind his disappearance? The musical draws in the audience to help answer these and other questions.
It is also an ambitious undertaking. A play within a play, "Drood" requires the actors to go back and forth between their two personas. Several of the actors (we won't give away the plot) may have more than two. Because it is set in Victorian England, the actors must affect British accents. And in keeping with the spirit of Dickens not having completed the novel, the musical has a handful of endings. Because the audience votes on the outcome, the principals have to memorize about a half-dozen different endings.
Auditions began right after Thanksgiving, and students had to sing "America the Beautiful." If they got a call back, they had to deliver a monologue and sing a song of their own choosing.
Julia Sero selected "That's Love" from the 1954 movie "Carmen Jones," an adaptation of Bizet's opera featuring black actors, but she lost her voice. "I had this great song prepared, and I sang it with limited success." But Lutz knew the senior's capabilities after working with her for the previous three years and cast her as Rosa Bud, the fiancee of the title character.
Jason Fliess picked "Kiss From a Rose" from the "Batman Forever" soundtrack and played the player from Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," his favorite play.
He, too, had been around for the three preceding years and was expecting a juicy role. He got the smaller part of Bazzard. "I was a little bitter at the beginning," Fliess says. But he says the rancor dissolved as he watched the other players fit into their roles and realized "the part Mr. Lutz gave me is absolutely perfect for me."
Lutz says casting can disappoint, but not everyone can be the star. And he has to do what's best for all the students. Even his younger daughter didn't get a call back, but the choreographer selected her as a dancer.
There is an occasional student who can't let go of the ill feelings, but Lutz says most of them are able to enjoy the experience of participating in another way. "I hope that is one of the things they learn. To find where you do fit in and capitalize on it."
Cast and crew members constantly move in and out of the front of the house, which is now sprinkled with other students on their lunch break. The audience includes more black students than there are in the entire production.
During his first few years at Allderdice, 25 percent to 30 percent of the students in the production were black, which is roughly equivalent to today's black student population in the high school.
Lutz says he's worked with the student government and the students' African-American action society, and he's tried musicals like "South Pacific" in the hopes of luring more minority students, but without much success.
Many of the minority students are bused into the neighborhood, and if they don't have their own transportation, "it's a hassle" getting home, he says. But Lutz believes this situation can only account for part of the lack of interest.
"To say it was a melting pot is not accurate."
Choreographer Jill Orlansky Machen puts the cast and crew through a curtain-call practice, and then they are dismissed for lunch. Boxes of pizza have been delivered to the rear of the auditorium, and most of the students descend upon them like hungry cats.
But Fliess is nervous. "It's not going the way it's supposed to," says the senior who wants to go into the business. Theater, that is. "I'm a ham. I like to go ballistic on stage."
Eatman plans to take a year off before going to college to see if he and his rock band can make a go of it.
As much as Sero enjoys singing and acting, she wants to be a biologist. "I don't think it's my calling in life," she says of theater. "I have a coal in my belly, but not a fire."
A few students who have crossed Lutz's path are on their way to making it on Broadway. While supportive, he does not encourage students. "It's a very, very difficult way to make a living. The last thing they need is encouragement. What they need is discouragement. The only ones who make it are people who say, 'I don't care what you say.' "
Time and Place: Tuesday, 12:30 p.m., the auditorium.
At 12:30, cast and crew begin again, but this time, they rehearse Act II first, and everyone is in costume.
A few problems still crop up. The Chairman forgets to hold a hankie over the principals' heads so the audience will know who they are applauding--and voting--for.
Standing in for the audience, the cast and crew vote for the odd couple of Princess Puffer, a wanton sinner, and the Rev. Mr. Crisparkle to be the lovers, which brings the show to its finale.
The actors speak more slowly. The audience can understand what they are saying, and that includes a very modest amount of profanity.
Though the musical has a moral, it does deal with drug abuse and prostitution and permits students to cross a line in school that would be otherwise unacceptable.
Becoming someone other than yourself is what acting is for anyone, says Lutz. "I think that is a large part of the appeal."
In the opium den scene, the dancers are supposed to wear flesh-colored bodysuits to make them look naked. "The costume committee decided that wasn't such a great idea," says Lutz. "The girls were so disappointed."
"So much better, so much better," exults Lutz, when they have completed both acts.
He then turns the floor over to Gillian Cannell, who has helped with costuming and whose son is in the stage crew. "We have to maintain some etiquette in the changing rooms, or we'll have absolute chaos," says Cannell, explaining what items need to be tagged and how.
Again, Lutz and Machen, the choreographer, review a few wrinkles left to be ironed out.
"I was real young in the 1890s," Lutz quips. "But I suspect people didn't go whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo." He circles his fist in the air a la former talk-show host Arsenio Hall, just as some of the actors had been doing during a scene. "I would believe you simply applaud."
Then, to the students' surprise, most are dismissed at 2:45, after Machen tells them she expects them to be ready right after school the next day.
A few rush to leave, but most stay behind. About 20 girls are jammed into the changing room, but the scene is orderly and quiet.
On stage, Bruce Golightly, soon to be the stepfather of a student in the show, starts teaching the students to apply stage makeup. "I have people in chairs over here and nobody to do them," he bellows.
The stage crew goes back to painting scenery. Before they ever got started, Pam Crosbie went to the library and looked up Victorian furniture and English architecture. She did research on cathedrals and pianos and clothing and learned to distinguish between the attire of the social classes.
She seems much more comfortable than last night when she was overseeing lighting for the first time. "I freaked out at first," she says, but now acknowledges she'll likely do it again. "Once he's broken me in, he's going to make me do it again," she says of Lutz.
An exhausted Leanne Crosbie was broken in four years ago. She was up till 2 this morning teaching Pam how to work the lights and preparing for the rehearsal. She hasn't been to class in a week. Some of her teachers will let her slide; others will expect makeup work or give her a lower grade.
"This is my life. I don't care about anything else final quarter of senior year," says the young woman who wants to major in engineering and theater so she can build her own some day.
Lutz wrestles with the dilemma of his students' missing classes and homework and their obligation to the production: "I worry about the lost work and the possible effects on grades. On the other hand, I admire so much their determination and their commitment to stay here until 11 o'clock two to three nights in a row. They have to get it done, they have to get it down, and it has to be just right."
For most of these students, the rewards are intrinsic. "It's very rewarding to see something you build being used," says Michal Balass, a junior, who painted bricks on the house and the mausoleum.
For Brian McDermott, a junior who plays the french horn, it's the excitement and friendships. "It's so electrical when you're playing with the orchestra. I like it more than playing in quintets or other orchestras."
Opening night Thursday is shaky. "It wasn't a bad performance, but I knew it could be so much better," says Lutz.
But Friday night is spectacular, if not flawless, as are the Saturday and Sunday performances, he says. All told, only about 1,150 people see "Drood" even though the first floor of the auditorium seats 928. And Lutz says attendance is up a couple hundred from last year.
"What's important comes from within. If nobody had come, those kids would have still had a good time."