By Mike Rosenberg
You have to be a real aficionado to remember the 1913 Victor Herbert operetta Sweethearts.
Mikel Mikeloviz, disguised as a monk, transports Princess Jeanne, the infant daughter of King René of the kingdom of Zilinia, to Bruges to wait in safety during the war, remember? Maybe a few more recall the 1938 movie version starring Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy.
In Bedford, however, this now-obscure production has a unique distinction. Sweethearts launched what has become an annual local landmark, not only culturally but also educationally, socially and emotionally. Sweethearts was the first Bedford High School musical.
That was in the spring on 1962, and as residents make plans to see the 2013 BHS production of Footloose March 6-9, it is enlightening to pause and contemplate the landscape of 51 musicals.
Over that span, there have been 42 different shows. Six have been performed twice and Oklahoma! five times. Most of the musicals have been simple and familiar, the kind that flourished on Broadway for years and evolved into motion pictures. There has been a sprinkling of Gilbert and Sullivan and an occasional darker story like Carousel. Some new ground has been broken in recent years with shows like Pippin and Little Shop of Horrors.
But what has made the BHS musicals so close to the hearts of Bedford residents for more than a half-century transcends the choice of show. The musicals are special because they are ours.
We claim ownership based on the breadth of student participation, the generosity of adult involvement and support, and the testimony by hundreds of alumni who describe how the experience enriched their lives.
Keith Phinney directed the first 27 shows and Barry Low the following 18. “We both tended to present the classics,” Low explained. “My reason was that we were able to have many students involved. There were the actor/singers, chorus members, students in the orchestra, and many students involved in set construction, set painting, lighting and sound.”
Everybody had an investment in the show and its success – not just actors and musicians and other specialists looking for a springboard to future success, but the broad student population who wanted to be involved. And, by extension, so did their parents and friends.
Phinney, who is in his late 80s and still resides in the area, said he decided to stage a high school musical because of his personal experience. “I had worked as a professional in performances at the South Shore Music Circus, and after I started teaching in Bedford, at the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly. So I had a background for this thing.”
His teaching career began at Melrose High School, where “the director of music asked me to stage a couple of shows. I liked doing it, so I carried it into Bedford. All this experience outside the school worked. It was a great thing for me – I really enjoyed it.”
Phinney noted that when Sweethearts hit the stage in the spring of 1962, Bedford High had been in existence for less than seven years. Indeed, the first graduating class was 1958. So in the early 1960s, “everything was sort of a welcome challenge, an approach of ‘let’s see how it goes’.”
He teamed up with William Toland, director of instrumental music, and “we were innovative in a lot of the things we did.” That pair became synonymous with BHS musicals for a quarter century.
The second production was a relatively new choice, Calamity Jane, featuring Deadwood City’s most famous peace officer and her sidekick Wild Bill Hickok. The 1964 selection of The Mikado was the first to be repeated – 18 years later.
The 1966 musical Annie Get Your Gun also returned to the BHS stage, just 15 years later. Geoff Spofford ‘81, now an attorney who lives in Westborough, was the male lead Frank Butler. “Seven or eight of us on the soccer team were involved. It was rare to have a big group of male athletes in the show, and we were just having a blast,” he recalled. “There were some football players on the crew, and one thing I learned back then is everyone is working together to make the show succeed.”
Phinney’s leadership “had the hugest impact on me. I still remember some of his sayings – ‘If you don’t have time, make time.’ My skill as a presenter today has a lot of Keith Phinney in it.”
Recently Spofford and his 11-year-old daughter performed together in a community theater rendition of Annie. “It was my first time back on stage in 32 years, and it was the most fun I’ve had.”
Guys and Dolls made its first BHS appearance in 1973 and its first reprise 14 years later. Sheila McCravy ’87 was a hit as Adelaide, and she asserts that “from the moment I started chorus my freshman year to senior year when I had that lead role, it was fantastic.” The musical, she agreed, was a classic example of something in which the total is greater than the sum of its parts.
Phinney was the driver for her success, said McCravy, also an attorney. “The respect that he commanded had a profound impact on my life. He taught me to accept my limitations, embrace my strengths and move forward.”
Every performer received detailed instructions, she said, recalling 1986 her brief speaking part as the mayor’s wife in Bye Bye, Birdie. “He would literally go frame by frame through it.”
Low said he immediately learned how important the annual event was when he arrived in 1988 to succeed Phinney as director of music in the Bedford schools. “Keith had established that tradition at BHS, and I continued it.” Low had a different, more casual style. Phinney, impeccable in a tuxedo, would accept compliments in the lobby after the show. Low often joked with audience members before curtain, and would make the obligatory pre-curtain instructions with wry humor.
“As I remember, everyone anticipated the announcement, students and parents, of what the spring show was going to be,” Low said. “I tried to keep the suspense up as best I could. From Brigadoon, to my last production of Oklahoma!, the experience of doing the spring show in Bedford was a labor of love.”
Dr. Elliot Rabinowitz ’04 had lunch with Low in mid-February and they reflected on the impact of the musical tradition on the participants. “Think of being 16 or 17 years old, getting up in front of hundreds of people, putting yourself out there, taking that risk, building confidence,” Rabinowitz said. “It’s a unique experience.”
Rabinowitz, a first-year medical resident at Children’s Hospital, was part of the musical team from 2001-2004. He had a major role as a junior in Good News and the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“So much about being a teenager is learning what you do well, what you need to work on and what you can feel proud,” he reflected. “It certainly helped me in interacting with other people, and provided a real sense of trying something new.”
He also stressed the team-building aspect that encompassed everyone involved. “A number of us in the cast would come on weekends and help the crew with painting and building. It was a fun group of people to get to know, with all going for this one big accomplishment.”
That kind of teamwork is inherent in the performing arts, said Nicole (Picard) O’Toole, current Music Department chair for the Bedford Public Schools. “Kinds in band, orchestra and chorus kids learn very important skills about how to work together to make something big,” she said.
O’Toole has an especially valuable perspective concerning the BHS musical. As a student, she was part of the 1986 makeup crew for Bye Bye Birdie, an actress with the mission band in Guys and Dolls the following year and a musician with the pit orchestra as a senior for My Fair Lady, Phinney’s final BHS show.
“I do think it’s very important and I’ve always enjoyed it,” O’Toole said of the musical. This year she reinstated the fall announcement of the show, which triggered a rush to watch scenes of Footloose on YouTube, she said.
One important element in the formula for success that has transcended the generations is the role of parent volunteers. “Parents are essential for helping get the extra tasks done,” said O’Toole. “They organize the cast party they help with a lot of other tasks, including costuming and makeup. It still takes a village to put on a musical.”
Co-directing this year’s production are teachers Evan Grunwald and Katrina Faulstich. “All of our music teachers work as performers outside of school,” said O’Toole, who joined the staff of her alma mater in 2000. “We are using our skills as well as teaching our skills.” The department head, who earned a master’s in flute performance at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, has played with the Metropolitan Wind Symphony for some 25 years.
There are dozens of other BHS musical alumni who have achieved greatness in the performing arts, from New York actors Brian Sutherland and Peter Galipeau to BU opera professor Christine Hamel and local playwright Melinda Lopez, from singers Nicole Berke and Amber Fisher to director Shannon Fillion and actress Meredith Campbell.
Phinney, who remembers every show and the lead actors and actresses, said he hears from alumni often.
Low points to the achievements of the students whose expertise was technical. “Bobby Dutton, who was an incredible technician on lights and sound, is having a very successful career in the disc jockey field. I recently heard from Phill Galler who was my lighting guy for his four years in high school. He just finished lighting the latest Tom Cruise movie. Shawn Fillion is an award winning lighting designer for shows and other theatrical events.”
Editor’s Note: Mike Rosenberg has seen every BHS musical since 1976. His children were part of the team from 1989-1994.