By Annette Hinkle
This is high season for the high school musical. While other kids on the East End may be out on ball fields or putting off homework as they battle spring fever, it’s not uncommon to find groups of dedicated theater students in darkened auditoriums perfecting song and tap numbers.
And that’s certainly been true at Pierson in recent weeks where hard working teens have been putting in long hours to perfect “Anything Goes,” this year’s spring musical which opens tonight and runs through Saturday in the school auditorium.
But it’s not everyday that someone intimately involved in creating the musical you’re working on comes in person to share insights into its creation.
Yet that’s exactly what happened at Pierson High School last Friday when librettist (and part time local resident) John Weidman stopped by before rehearsals to talk about how he came to write the book for the 1987 revival of “Anything Goes.”
The musical, which is based on the songs of Cole Porter, originally ran on Broadway in 1934 and was penned by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Set aboard a passenger ship bound from America to London, the comic plot revolves around stowaways, mistaken identity, secret loves and wanted criminals. Though full of classic Porter numbers, Weidman noted after its initial Broadway run, the show was largely relegated to the realm of nightclubs and cabarets.
“It has an extraordinary collection of songs, but the book just didn’t age well,” explained Weidman. “Some of it has to do with conventions. There were 15 to 20 pages of dialogue between songs. An audience today wouldn’t sit still for that. Expectations changed over time and the book had become archaic.”
The play enjoyed an off-Broadway revival in 1962 with about half the original songs removed, and several other Porter numbers put in their place, but Weidman told the students it still felt more like a revue, than a true musical.
So when Gregory Mosher took the helm of Lincoln Center he decided to give “Anything Goes” new life, and Weidman was charged with reworking the script.
“It was the late ‘80s and coincidently, Anna Crouse, Russel’s widow, wanted a first class Broadway revival,” said Weidman. “But she understood the problem was the book. Her son, Timothy, and I were close friends, so we thought we’d take a crack at it.”
“Book writing is a bizarre invisible art. If it works, it means what I’ve done has resulted in a piece of work that supports the show,” he explained. “Our goal was to create a pace and speed for the show that would fit the audiences expectations, but feel like it was written in the 1930s.”
“We didn’t want it to feel contemporary.”
That 1987 revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater redefined the musical, and “Anything Goes” is back on Broadway again right now — at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
“We’re pleased how it turned out — it’s a chance to hear the songs in a theater as opposed to a cabaret,” said Weidman.
The Pierson students sat rapt as Weidman talked about his work and before treating him to their rendition of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” had a chance to ask him questions. Topics included the challenges of casting this show (“It’s hard. You need someone who has comic chops, but can sing like crazy.”), how he feels about the Tonys — he’s been nominated for it three times — (“I’m not a big fan of awards. They make one person feel good and everyone else like they lost.”) and the importance of reviews (“I do read reviews, but I’m not looking for information about what I did right or did wrong. They’re opinions and what they really are is measures of how economically successful a show will be. You have to find fulfillment whether you are on stage or off. Don’t rely on reviews.”)
For sophomore Zachary DePetris, who plays Moonface Martin (Public Enemy #13) in the play, meeting Weidman in person took on special meaning given that he recently saw “Anything Goes” on Broadway, even before he knew what part he would be playing in the Pierson production.
And he had front row seats.
“I had chills the whole time,” admitted DePetris who would like to study musical theater in college. “Since my first show in fifth grade, I’ve known you build a family in theater. You have a family here no matter what happens and whatever you go through, they’ll support you.”
Junior Gabrielle Gardiner plays heiress Hope Harcourt, the ingénue engaged to a man she doesn’t love. She is secretly reunited on the ship with Billy Crocker (Beau Riva), a young man she met briefly in a cab who has stowed away to pursue her.
“She has a spark,” said Gardiner of her character. “She wants to do what she wants to do, of course, and have a happy ending.”
Gardiner has been performing in Pierson plays since sixth grade, but this is her first lead part.
“I think being a part of a show is so worth the time,” said Gardiner. “It’s easy to underestimate the value of this experience, and it’s hard to put into words how it helps you grow. When I reflect on middle and high school, I’ll always remember the plays as the highlight.”
Gardiner is also jazzed by the costumes that come with her lead role.
“I get to wear beautiful beaded dresses and a wedding dress with lots of lace. In the past, it was mainly leotards, but this time I have five costumes of my own,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun. I really appreciate it.”
Senior Beau Riva is doing double duty for this production — besides playing Billy Crocker, Hope’s love interest, he is also building the set for the production.
“It’s a completely different perspective,” said Riva. “It’s hard to be set designer and actor at the same time.”
Negotiating space on stage with the choreographer and figuring out how to hinge entrance doors in the bow of the ship shaped set are just two of the challenges Riva’s has had to face in recent weeks as the designer.
“Everyone has their own idea for these things,” he said. “I’m open to ideas but sometimes they’re not thinking about the whole set.”
Then he has to learn his lines.
“I love building the sets. I like to see how they use them,” said Riva when asked which aspect he prefers. “But I also like acting. It’s a big conflict.”
There are a few new faces in the musical this year. For the first time, the Sag Harbor school board has allowed Bridgehampton students to join the Pierson cast — they are sophomores Jenna Hochtstedler and India Hemby and senior Anika Hochstedler who plays Chastity, one of nightclub singer Reno Sweeney’s “angels.”
“We’re like Reno’s back up dancers,” explained Hochstedler. “She has become an evangelist. So now we’re spiritual, but we’ll also go to the bar.”
“I love this play. It’s very upbeat and very entertaining,” she added.
Though she’s a senior, because Bridgehampton School doesn’t have a theater program of its own, this is Anika’s first — and only — opportunity to appear in a high school musical.
“Sports is a great way to meet kids from other districts, but to have this offered too is great,” noted Hochstedler, who hopes that Bridgehampton students will continue to have an outlet for their theatrical ambitions in the future.
Junior Emily Hinz is happy to have the Bridgehampton students on stage with her, and agrees that it’s a trend that should continue.
“They add so much to the show. I hope we continue to open our doors for them,” said Hinz. “There is talent there.”
Hinz should know. As Reno Sweeney, the female lead in “Anything Goes,” she has a large number of song and dance numbers to perfect. But Hinz is not easily intimidated. Musical theater is her passion (and what she plans to pursue in college), and Weidman’s visit on Friday definitely had an impact on her.
“I’ve never met a writer of a Broadway show, I went right up to him and introduced myself, and said ‘I’m Reno,’” said Hinz. “He came out just for this – he’s busy and we’re very blessed to have that. I think it definitely got everyone a little more hyped. He was right up front when we did our number.”
Last year, Hinz played Velma in Pierson’s much talked about production of Bob Fosse’s “Chicago.” Given “Chicago’s” savvy adult-themed script and Velma’s intricately choreographed dance numbers, Reno would seem to be an easier role to grasp. But Hinz has not found that to be true.
“I can’t say that becoming Reno was easier than becoming Velma,” admitted Hinz. “For both either you get it or you don’t. I didn’t get Reno right away — but I know I have her now.”
“I think this is harder to read,” she added. “For me personally, there’s a lot more songs in this show, it’s about the same amount of dialogue, and the dancing is different, it’s tap. This is not Fosse, it was a big leap and some of these character aren’t easy. But everyone really grew into it.”
“The music’s great. I love the lyrics, it’s a fun show,” said Hinz. “It’s been growing on me. I have no doubt this is going to be great.”
“Anything Goes” runs Thursday to Saturday March 29 to 31, 2012 in Pierson High School Auditorium. Shows are 7 p.m. nightly with an additional show at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are $7. Some tickets will be held back for sale at the door 30 minutes before show time.
Top: Zach DePetris, Emily Hinz and Beau Riva rehearse the song “Friendship” in Pierson High School’s production of “Anything Goes” on Monday, March 26, 2012. (Michael Heller photo).