Category Archives: Arts

“Man Of La Mancha” Comes “Home”

Audiences — and the Westport Country Playhouse itself — are excited about the coming production of “Man of La Mancha.”

Since its debut in 1965, the Don Quixote-inspired play-within-a-play has become a theatrical icon. It won 5 Tony Awards, has been revived 4 times on Broadway, and was staged twice previously at the Playhouse.

Two Westporters are particularly excited about the Playhouse’s September 25-October 13 run: Melody James and Clay Singer.

James is the daughter of Hal James. The actor, and radio/TV producer, was between projects nearly 50 years ago when he and his wife Florence saw the then-fledgling musical at Goodspeed Opera House.

Inspired, they went backstage and asked how to get involved.

At the University of Chicago, James had taken a class on Cervantes and Don Quixote with professor Thornton Wilder. With his life experiences, and then seeing “La Mancha” in development, James thought the time was right to help bring it to Broadway.

In 1965 he had 3 children in college: Michael (involved in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California), Beau (at the New School) and Melody (at Carnegie Institute of Technology).

Producing a Broadway show is always risky. But James’ bet paid off.

With his wife’s help, he enlisted fellow Westporters as angels. One was Mal Beinfield.

An orthopedic surgeon by trade, and Staples High School’s football doctor by hobby, he had never been involved in theater. But he invested, loved the challenge, and said later it was one of the best things he’d ever done.

For years, an original Al Hirschfeld drawing of “Man of La Mancha” hung on Beinfield’s wall.

Despite his New York ties, James — who moved to Westport with Florence in 1949 — was deeply involved in Westport too.

Hal and Florence James

He produced Coleytown Capers, a mid-1950s elementary school fundraiser involving talented Westporters as skit and song writers, performers, even can-can dancers.

He also helped start the first Westport-Weston Arts Council, brought Odetta to Staples, organized teen dances at Longshore — and worked with Craig Matheson to found Staples Players.

Clay Singer

Which brings us to the second Westporter who is particularly excited about “Man of La Mancha” at the Playhouse: Clay Singer.

The 2013 Staples graduate — a former Player himself, and a graduate of Melody’s alma mater, now called Carnegie Mellon University — is part of the upcoming cast. He made his Playhouse debut last year, in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Melody James loves “Man of La Mancha” for its “profound inspiration.” She says her father loved the show because it “points the way to how we all survive and sustain.”

For her — and for Clay Singer too — the Westport Country Playhouse production is not an impossible dream.

(For tickets and more information, click here. The 3 p.m. Saturday, October 13 performance will be open-caption in Spanish, a nod to the many Hispanic cast and creative team members.)

Bang The Drum, Randy

Work brought Randy Brody to Westport from Brooklyn 40 years ago. The job did not work out, but he stayed.

He did animation and special effects for films. He also wrote, and traveled the world. In his free time, he played drums. More than 25 years ago, he began leading drumming circles in South Norwalk.

Randy Brody

His circles grew to 25 people. No matter what kind of day he or anyone else had, at the end of a drum circle everyone felt good.

When Randy realized that technical writing was not for him, he turned his attention more seriously to drumming. He took classes in music therapy, studied improvisation and music teaching, and improved as a hand drummer.

As he delved into African, Middle Eastern and Brazilian percussion, he thought to himself: “This is why I’m on this planet.”

In 2001 — around the time he turned 50 — Randy left the corporate world.

His first drum circle gig was at The Marvin, a senior residence in Norwalk. He set up in the living room. Within a few minutes, everyone was having a great time. “Even people having trouble walking were drumming and dancing,” Randy recalls.

The director asked when Randy was coming back — and what he charged. He had never thought about either question.

Randy walked into senior centers like Westport’s, and assisted living facilities like the Greens at Cannondale. He had no appointments, but was welcomed in.

No one else was doing anything like it. Within a year or two, he was known as The Drum Guy. He was in demand from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

Randy Brody with adults…

Next, Randy organized drum circles for young adults with special needs.

“I experienced the healing power of drumming. It was therapeutic for them — and me,” he says. “I’d never had that sense of fulfillment in any job. Now I never have a bad day at work.”

Group drumming creates high energy and builds community, Randy says. It reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

It helps people with chronic diseases. One person told him, “For an hour, I forget I’m fighting cancer.”

He’s heard a nurse say of an Alzheimer’s patient, “He can’t do anything.” Five minutes later, the same person is drumming — and smiling.

Randy also does one-on-one sessions with autistic children. Sometimes the entire family joins in.

… and a younger drummer.

These days, his main work is with Abilis. Several times a months, he leads drum circles for the Greenwich-based special needs non-profit.

“It’s so rewarding, sitting in a circle playing hand drums,” he notes. “There’s such a connection between the group, the therapists, social workers and me. They’ve become my family.”

Some autistic youngsters can’t speak, or express themselves. But, Randy says, they relate to drums. And when they see him coming, they smile.

Every drum circle is different. But each time, Randy leaves with a full heart.

In the last few years, Randy has had his own medical issues. But he brings his drums to the hospital. Even after surgery, he plays.

It helps with pain management. The doctors think it’s helpful for recovery.

And, Randy smiles, “All the nurses start dancing.”

(Randy Brody will put together a drum circle for anyone — including corporations. Click here for more information. Hat tip: Sarah Gross.)

 

Kids Create Art — And More?

Drew Friedman is the gift that keeps giving.

The late restaurant owner and longtime arts supporter’s $1 million bequest to endow a Community Arts Center — a series of projects, rather than an actual building — has already funded several scholarships and programs for under-served students.

On Thursday afternoon, another installment of Art on the Beach brought youngsters to the Compo pavilion.

Led by Westport artist and educator Katherine Ross and her daughter Rebecca, the budding artists painted, drew and created collages.

A few of the works created Thursday at Compo Beach.

They also talked about forming a collective for young artists in town. Thanks to Drew’s funds, all sessions would be free.

To learn more — as a young artist, or the parent or friend of one — email Miggs Burroughs: miggsb@optonline.net.

Dodie Pettit’s Next Act

Kevin Gray — the  1976 Staples High School graduate who became the youngest actor to play the lead role in “Phantom of the Opera,” and acted in or directed more than 150 productions — died in 2013, of a heart attack. He was just 55.

Kevin met his wife, Dodie Pettit, in “Phantom.” Quite a performer herself, she starred in “Cats” on Broadway, was in 3 Tony-winning shows, and worked with Staples Players (where her husband learned his craft) in a summer production.

Since then, Dodie has kept Kevin’s memory alive. She produced a tribute CD, with over 170 Broadway singers. She also hosted and organized an evening of songs at the Levitt Pavilion, dedicated to her husband.

But life goes on. Now Dodie’s life has taken a wonderful turn.

In 1979 she met Rex Fowler. He was Aztec Two-Step’s singer/songwriter. She was hired to play guitar and sing on the folk rock band’s 5th album.

Nearly 40 years later they ran into each other again.

On August 4, they got married.

Husband and wife.

The ceremony — in Dodie’s Meeker Road back yard — included locals Terry Eldh, Raissa Katona Bennett and Frank Mastrone. All were in “Phantom,” and all sang at the ceremony.

Mary Jo Duffy was there; she sang too. Many musician friends of Rex’s performed, including his Aztec Two-Step partner of 47 years, Neal Shulman.

Of course, Dodie and Rex sang as well.

Rex has adopted Dodie into his band, on guitar, piano and vocals. They’ve toured often since the spring, when they announced their engagement.

They play Saturday, September 15 at the Mitchell Farm Fest in East Haddam, Connecticut. Jonathan Edwards is also on the bill.

A Westport date may be in the works.

Congratulations, Dodie and Rex!

Dodie Pettit and Rex Fowler perform together.

All That Jazz

For over 3 years, “Jazz Rabbi” Greg Wall and his cohorts have created a thriving community.

Every Thursday night, they’ve played at a local restaurant.

But — according to an email sent to fellow musicians and fans — a “deteriorating environment for both the audience and the artists” is causing the Jazz Society of Fairfield County to seek a new home.

The goal is to ensure that “live, world class jazz music remains a key part of our area’s cultural life.”

Greg Wall, the Jazz Rabbi.

This week, the Jazz Rabbi invited everyone to his “other pulpit” — Beit Chaverim Synagogue — for top-notch music, food (this week, sushi), drink and good cheer.

The Jazz Society does more than play. In just 3 years they’ve raised funds to buy the famous Steinway piano from the historic Village Gate Jazz Club in New York. They’ve gotten not-for-profit status, conducted workshops for local students, and produced a benefit concert for Bridgeport’s Neighborhood Studios at the Bijou Theater.

Meanwhile — until an appropriate venue emerges — the musicians are looking for hosts for Thursday night house parties. If interested, email jazzrabbi@gmail.com.

Listen Up!

In May, “06880” highlighted the life of Mike Joseph.

After a long career as a  recording engineer, record producer and club designer — he collaborated in Nat King Cole’s Hollywood studio with Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Blue Cheer and others — the 1971 Staples High School graduate built a production studio in his Kansas City home. He digitizes vintage analog tapes: concerts, weddings, lectures. And — of course — old music recordings.

Most readers thought “that’s interesting” (or “who cares?”).

Jane Nordli Jessep said, “Wow! I wonder what he can do with my tapes?”

Jane Nordli, back in the day.

For decades, a dozen old reel-to-reel tapes had sat in the 1965 Staples grad’s cabinet.

Years ago, she tried to turn them into CDs. She was told they were all gummed up, unplayable — forget it.

One of the tapes was from her days as a Manhattan School of Music student. “My singing career was very spotty,” she says. “So this meant a lot to me. And it was really a fantastic performance by the entire cast.”

Wondering if she really could revisit the past, she emailed Joseph. He said he might be able to help. He told her how to pack up the tapes, and where to send them.

Mike listened to everything. Some had old family moments, from Jane’s childhood. Another came from her senior year at Staples High School, singing folk songs with then-boyfriend Steve Emmett. (“And generally being silly, young and foolish!” she adds.)

Joseph worked his magic on those tapes — including the conservatory one. He converted them all into great CDs.

Listening to the “new” recording of her 1976 Manhattan School of Music performance of Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene,” Jane says, “I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was, vocally and dramatically.” Several cast members, she notes, went on to important performing careers.

“Thank you for sharing Mike’s story,” Jane says. “Your post ended up generating a wonderful, unexpected delight in one of your reader’s lives.”

“06880”‘s tagline is “where Westport meets the world.” Maybe it should be “the soundtrack of Westport’s life.”

Jane Nordli in “Street Scene,” one of the recordings Mike Joseph resurrected for her.

Joel Freedman: Zen And The Art Of Cello Teaching

Everyone knows how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

But it doesn’t hurt to have a teacher like Joel Freedman.

The Hastings-on-Hudson, New York native — and, since 1992 a Westport resident — started playing the cello when he was 10. That’s 65 years ago.

“The cello is a way of life,” Freedman says. “It makes a beautiful tone. It’s the instrument closest to the human voice. And it informs all that we do.”

He studied with a student of Pablo Casals. He played in classical orchestras, and with jazz groups. He performed at — yes — Carnegie Hall.

Freedman went to New York University for filmmaking (where Martin Scorsese edited his first movie). But he also earned a scholarship to study music.

He’s still doing both. He’s a performing and recording artist. His film credits include work with Natalie Wood and Ned Beatty. Robert Redford narrated 2 of his movies about Native Americans; Joanne Woodward narrated one about indigenous Arctic culture.

Joel Freedman (Photo/Raymond Currytto)

Freedman first came to Westport in 1947, when his parents visited friends in “this beautiful little town.” When he moved here from New York 26 years ago, with his wife and daughter, he already had a storied career teaching — among others — Juilliard musicians.

In Westport, he expanded his student base. He’s worked with those as young as 11, and teenagers in local schools and orchestras (including Norwalk, Bridgeport and Stamford youth symphonies). Not long ago, one of his youngest students “fearlessly” entertained listeners at the Senior Center.

But he’s also taught an IBM executive, master plumber, hedge fund attorney and other full-grown, busy-with-other-lives adults.

Joel Freedman teaches students of all ages.

Whatever their age, Freedman’s mission is to get aspiring cellists to relax, feel good, get in “the zone” and not worry about anything else. Among the many endorsements on his website is this: “Joel is a Zen cello teacher.”

His style appeals, for example, to that IBM man, who decided in middle age that he wanted to play. He’s studied with Freedman for 13 years. He takes his cello on business trips — and in speeches, describes how music helps him focus.

When the hedge fund attorney arrives at Freedman’s Westport studio for lessons, “he forgets about work and meetings. He can relax,” Freedman says.

The plumber came to the cello when he was repairing a boiler. Hearing Freedman practice, he said, “I don’t know a thing about music. But I’d love to learn.” They bartered: the boiler for lessons. Now, Freedman says proudly, the plumber plays Bach suites and tarantellas. (He also started a rock group.)

Freedman says his oldest pupil is 75 years old.

Who is it?

“Me!” Freedman says joyfully. ” I’m always learning something from my students too.”

Remembering George Weigle

In March, longtime and much beloved Staples High School choral teacher George Weigle turned 90 years old. Yesterday, he died peacefully.

In his long career, Mr. Weigle influenced thousands of students. Barbara Sherburne was one. On his 90th birthday, she offered this tribute. It’s reprinted here, in honor of one of Westport’s most beloved educators.

George grew up in Parkersburg, West Virginia. At West Virginia Wesleyan College he spotted a woman from Norwalk, Connecticut named Eleanor, singing in a talent show. He told a friend, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” It was love at first sight.

George graduated in 1950, 2 years before Eleanor. They married on August 21, 1954. After 63 years, their marriage is still going strong.

George studied for a year at Boston University after college. He taught school in West Virginia, then returned and earned his master’s in 1954 from BU. In 1980, West Virginia Wesleyan presented him with an honorary doctorate.

In 1954, George heard about an opening at Bedford Junior High. He got the job, and after 5 years moved on to Staples High School. He taught there until 1988. Eleanor taught at Bedford Elementary School from 1954 until 1961. Some years later, she began private tutoring.

George Weigle in a classic pose. (Photo courtesy of Ken Lahn)

George started the Orphenians in 1960. He named the group after his Orphenian quartet, led by his college music professor. Of course, Orpheus was a legendary Greek musician.

George continued the Candlelight Concert tradition, begun in 1940 by John Ohanian.

George and Eleanor bought a house on Robin Hill Road. They’ve lived there ever since. George told a fellow Westport music teacher — John Hanulik — about a vacant plot next door. The Hanuliks moved there in 1960, and John lived there until he died. Marie, his wife, still lives there. Having 2 incredible music teachers live next door to each other for so long is amazing.

I was a student at Long Lots Junior High, in a music class taught by Mr. Hanulik. One day, Mr. Weigle came to speak to us about Staples. He seemed very stern, and scared me. Mr. Hanulik had an incredible sense of humor. I thought, “Uh oh.” I needn’t have worried.

George Weigle took the Orphenians around the world — to Austria, Romania, Poland, Spain and many other countries. His first trip was to the Virgin Islands (above) in 1966. (Photo courtesy of Jon Gailmor)

When I was applying to colleges, Mr. Weigle suggested West Virginia Wesleyan. That’s where I went. He wrote me freshman year, “Don’t burn the candle at both ends.” I wound up getting mononucleosis. I guess he saw something coming that I didn’t.

George was also choral director at the United Methodist Church, for 43 years (1954 to 1997). I sang at the Saugatuck Congregational Church, just up the hill from the Methodist Church. George invited me to join his adult choir, when I was still in high school. I’d do both, running down the hill to get to the Methodist Church in time. I sang whenever I could under George’s direction. When my mom passed away in 1978, he was part of the quartet that sang at her service.

I’ve known George for a very long time. We communicated regularly all these years. He frequently sent me cassette tapes of Sunday services at the Methodist Church. He always sent a Christmas card, as did John Hanulik. They often arrived on the same day — and occasionally they chose the same card.

George was like a father figure to me. I have a hard time believing he is 90. You can send cards to him at 10 Robin Hill Road. I’m sure he would appreciate hearing from you. He touched so many lives in so many ways.

————————————————-

In 2004, I interviewed the retired choral director for my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. Here are some excerpts:

In 1954 John Ohanian brought me in for an interview. He took me to meet [principal] Norm Flint about an opening at Bedford Junior High. No one told me the kids had driven 3 choral teachers away the previous year, so I took the job.

It was tough. Every morning Eleanor had to push me out the door. Every student had to take general music. My first 9th grade chorus had 50 girls. Gradually it got better. By my 3rd year we had boys singing in the chorus too.

I went to Staples the second year it was open. The only electives the kids were offered were art, music and home ec – not the zillions of courses they have today. John had established the choral program, and I was in the right place at the right time. It was a popular group, and I had the junior highs feeding me. Looking back, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. George Weigle directed these choir members in 1981 — as he did for 39 years.

We gave 4 Candlelight Concerts each year. I’d get called in between performances, and reamed out – maybe I didn’t interpret a piece of music as I should have. Looking back, I realize John was right.

He put me on a path, and guided me. I in turn demanded excellence from my students. I realize now that students understood what excellence was.

The program grew, and so did its reputation. The harder the music, the better they performed – and the more they wanted. I gave them stuff I didn’t think high school kids could do, like John Corigliano’s “L’Invitation au Voyage.” It’s an extended piece, very contemporary, a cappella with duos and solos. Paul McKibbins’ “Psalm 67,” which he wrote and dedicated to me and the Orphenians, was the second most difficult piece.

At the time I did not realize what we were doing, level-wise. Now I wonder how I taught it, and how they memorized it – extended stuff like Handel’s “Coronation Anthems.”

In 1960-61 I started a small group: Orphenians. We had auditions, and selected 24 to 28 singers. We met once a week after school at first, then twice a week. We did lose some of the guys to sports.

From its small beginning, George Weigle’s Orphenians grew enormously. In 2010, the elite group celebrated its 50th anniversary.

In 1966 we went to St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and in 1972 to France, Austria and Italy. We came in second in a choral festival in Italy. If I knew then what I know now, we would have been first. I didn’t recognize shadings of dynamics. From then on, I paid attention to it. We lost to a group from Oklahoma that met five days a week.

In 1975 we went to Romania. That was an adventure! A very poor country, with very friendly people. We had to be careful what we sang.

In 1978 we went to Poland. That was our first outdoor program. We sang the Polish national anthem. Afterward they told us that might have been too nationalistic.

In 1981 we went to Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. On July 4th we sang at Notre Dame – it was filled with Americans. They asked us to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which we’d never prepared. It went off okay.

In 1983 we went to Spain. We sang concerts to packed halls at 10 p.m. – it was still light. And in 1985 we went to England, Wales and Scotland.

In 2010 — the 50th anniversary of Orphenians — George Weigle guest conducted the current elite group in the finale, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Westport was growing, building schools, becoming more affluent. Parents wanted their kids to be in touch with the arts — not just academics. The quality of teachers was so high, because of who John hired – and fired. He made sure the right teachers were at the right levels. As a result kids attracted other kids, and it all just blossomed. Quality led to more quality. It was all because of John’s dream and perseverance.

I think students – particularly at the high school – need the arts, in order to be enhanced and broadened. Here in Westport we’ve got doctors and lawyers who have been exposed to the arts. Westport people perform, and they’re concertgoers, and they see plays. The arts are so important to a rounded personality. Singing and playing with other people is so important. You don’t always realize when you’re in high school how meaningful it is. Sometimes it takes decades to sink in. But it does. It does.

A lot of high schools have music. But not many have music at the level of Westport.

Everyone who ever sang for George Weigle remembers the experience. Jon Gailmor, who still writes, performs and teaches, offered these thoughts.

I was in the Class of 1966 at Staples. I was immersed in the performing arts, and they shaped my every waking moment in high school.

Jon Gailmor (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

With the Orphenians, I got my first taste of the power of music. I’ll never forget watching the faces of school kids in the Virgin Islands as we wailed away. And I remember watching senior citizens in Norwalk and Bridgeport being moved both to tears and guffaws by our songs. In the Staples a cappella choir and boys’ glee club, I experienced the indescribable joy of making a large, harmonious sound and filling auditoriums with its beauty.

I loved a lot of things about Staples, but it was music where I really found out who I was and where my passion lay.

I know quite a few fellow high school performers whose lives have been similarly sparked by our unforgettable musical experiences at Staples.

Today I make and perform my own music, while helping other folks discover their creativity through songwriting residencies. I can honestly thank those three amazing years with George Weigle and my Staples brothers and sisters for the enormous role they played in helping me find my passionate life’s work.

Remembering Rachel Doran

Two weeks ago, “06880” reported on Rachel Doran’s battle.

The rising senior at Cornell University  — a National Merit Commended Scholar, talented Players costume designer, and founder of “Rachel’s Rags,” a company that makes intricate cotton and fleece pajama tops and bottoms — was in critical condition.

In July she was diagnosed with Stevens Johnson Syndrome and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, a rare reaction to common medications that resulted in severe burns to 95% of her body. She then developed Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome — another rare and life-threatening syndrome.

Rachel Doran

Last night — surrounded by her family — Rachel died peacefully. Her family said:

 True to Rachel’s spirit and with the same fervor she had for everything she took on, she fought the most difficult health issues with tenacity and grace.

At this time Alan, Lisa and Ellie ask that you keep Rachel’s memory close to your hearts as arrangements are made to celebrate her amazing life. Her beauty, kindness, style and wit were second to none. We will cherish the light she brought to so many people along the way.

Services will be held Wednesday (August 22, Temple Israel), at a time to be determined.

Westport School Calendar: A Work Of Art(s)

In 1976, Westport artists honored America’s bicentennial with a special calendar.

Howard Munce, Hardie Gramatky, Randy Enos, Al Willmott, Ward Brackett, Stevan Dohanos and others contributed sketches of Old Mill Beach, the Compo cannons, old Town Hall, the railroad station, even the revered Minnybus.

Proceeds helped fund Bicentennial events in town, and the purchase of artwork for the Bicentennial art collection.

Hardie Gramatky’s illustration of Old Mill, for the 1976 Bicentennial calendar. The original is being donated by his daughter, Linda Gramatky Smith, to the Westport Public Art Collection.

Inspired by that project, the Long Lots PTA launched a Westport Schools Calendar in the early 1980s. Student artists submitted work. Filled with dates of key school and district activities, it quickly became a major fundraiser.

In 2018 we’re a lot closer to the Sestercentennial than the Bicentennial. But the Westport Schools Calendar is stronger than ever.

In 2015, the LLS PTA handed the project over to Friends of Westport Public Art Collection. Proceeds now support the amazing collection that hangs in every school, and many town buildings.

This year, over 200 local students — from kindergarten through 12th grade — submitted art for the calendar. A committee chose a colorful image by Greens Farms Elementary School 1st grader Jack Steel for the cover. GFS 4th grader Kasey Feeley’s homage to the district as a thank-you to teachers graces the inside cover

Jack Steel’s 2018 cover art .

Each of the 13 months features wonderful student work — in full color.

The young artists were inspired by their schools, sports teams, activities and nature. Like their professional predecessors in 1976, their images relate powerfully to Westport.

“In an era when we all keep our calendars on electronic devices, the Westport Schools Calendar is a wonderful throwback,” says 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

“You can see a whole month’s events spread out in front of you, accompanied by fun student art.”

Marpe’s daughter graduated from Staples years ago. But he still uses the calendar to keep up with school events.

Staples High student Will Roschen’s image of his building is the March illustration.

The 2018-19 Westport Schools Calendar can be ordered here online (scroll down). Click here to print out the form, and mail it in.

Calendars will also be on sale at all Back to School nights, and later this month at Saugatuck Sweets and Athletic Shoe Factory.

(Hat tip: Kathie Motes Bennewitz)