In 1994, Staples Players staged an entirely student-run production of “Falsettos.”
Directed by senior Ari Edelson, the Tony Award-winning musical — dealing with hot-button issues like AIDS, homosexuality and religion — was a smash. Audience members were in tears; cast members called it “life-changing.”
But the show was not produced at the high school. Administrators — unnerved by the themes — forced the show off campus. The Westport Country Playhouse welcomed it to their historic stage.
Shirah Lipson Sklar remembers it well. She was a Staples student then; her friends acted in the show, and played in the pit. The 4 sold-out performances were momentous events.
Now the senior rabbi at Temple Shalom in Norwalk, she’ll revisit it again next month. “Falsettoland” — the 2nd act of “Falsettos” — runs weekends at the Music Theatre of Connecticut.
It will be especially poignant for Shirah. Her son Ari plays Jason, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah.
Dan Sklar — Shirah’s husband, and Ari’s father — is in the cast too. He’s Marvin, Jason’s father. In the show he suffers from a mysterious, undefined illness. The audience knows it is AIDS.
Acting and singing come naturally to Ari, a Coleytown Middle School 7th grader. Shirah sang beautifully as a Staples Orphenian under director Alice Lipson — her own mother. Dan was an actor more than 20 years ago, but stopped performing when he entered rabbinic school.
Still, Ari was surprised when he learned that his stage father would be his real father. Dan is proud that Ari has long been an advocate for social justice. And he realized that as Ari prepares for his own, actual bar mitzvah, sharing the stage in a show like this was too good to pass up.
Ari did not know that Dan auditioned with director Kevin Connors. A 12-year-old boy may not be thrilled about being in a musical with his father, Dan admits. But now that they’re rehearsing — sharing the process of putting together a very important play — Ari is enjoying their new on- and off-stage roles.
Dan calls the show “an old friend.” He knew “Falsettos” well in his performing days. Many actor friends were gay; he helped raise money through work with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“There are so many layers to this play,” he notes. “As we go through dark, tough times, with another disease, it’s important to have ‘up’ moments like these.”
As rehearsals continue, Dan sees his son through new eyes. “He’s an amazing kid — well, not really a kid anymore,” he says. “We’re proud he’s growing up in a town that celebrates people for who they are. Every day he teaches us about acceptance, affirmation, and the changing world.
“I might be completely overwhelmed at the end, at the bar mitzvah scene. I just hope I can say my lines to him.”
After this, the proud father says, Ari’s real bar mitzvah in June will be a breeze.
(“Falsettoland” will be performed November 5-21: Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., at Music Theatre of Connecticut, 509 Westport Avenue, Norwalk. Click here for tickets and more information.)