Les Mis, Played Out and Lived Out

This is the text of my recent News Tribune article about a high school musical production that was not only a joy for the audience but transformative for the school community.

In May Stadium High School transported me to nineteenth-century Paris—violence, poverty, pathos and all.  The school staged an ambitious production of the musical Les Misérables.  Two months later, I am still humming the music and remembering the loud standing ovation.  I loved the beautiful production, but what struck me even more deeply was the way the young cast lived the story’s redemptive message all spring. CIMG7424

Les Misérables, or “Les Mis” as it is often called, is based on Victor Hugo’s sweeping French novel of social upheaval and personal courage.  It tells of Jean Valjean, an oppressed prisoner who went on to extend grace all around him, even forgiving the man who had caused his greatest suffering.

“It’s the greatest musical of all time,” says director Liz Jacobsen.   “The message is still needed.”

When Liz chose Les Mis, she knew the task would be huge.  With almost all the dialog sung, the show is essentially an opera, and the music is especially challenging for the lead characters.  The cast is large, which makes blocking and costuming complex, and the show requires more males than are usually willing to sing in a high school production.  Finally, the sheer epic greatness of the story can make this an intimidating project.

“It has to be done right,” Liz says.

Liz and the school set out to do it right.  That meant being true, onstage and off, to the story’s theme of kindness and unity.  As a Stadium parent, Liz already knew many of the students and teachers, and she wanted the production to embrace the whole Stadium community.  She began a massive recruitment effort, personally inviting students to audition, asking them to bring their friends, asking teachers to encourage students to audition.  When students wanted to participate but had after-school commitments, Liz helped them work out scheduling conflicts.  The message was, “We’re doing something good, and we want you to join us, and together we’ll make it work.”

The result was 84 enthusiastic, committed students—cast, stage crew, musicians and other helpers—showing up after school to rehearse with Liz and with musical director Kerstin Shaffer.  Half of the students had never taken part in a musical before, but they threw themselves into it and learned quickly.  Beyond the cast, the school band, orchestra, French club, photography and design departments contributed their help.

“Students found their niche and a sense of belonging,” Liz says.

The larger community joined in as well.  Stadium parents provided snacks, created a lobby display and, under the direction of parent Tiffeny Stoaks, came up with 150 costumes.  In the Stadium neighborhood, businesses donated money, materials and services.  The giving went both ways.  One day the fifty-member cast showed up in Stadium Thriftway to sing “One Day More,” delighting the clerks and shoppers.

Les Mis’s poignant story gave the directors opportunity to talk with the cast about what it means to care for the poor and disenfranchised.  A canned food drive was organized.  Students came to see their involvement in Les Mis as an act of generosity and compassion.

The buzz at the school was electric.  Excited cast members talked up the show to their friends.  They arranged for music from Les Mis to be played over the intercom in the halls between classes.  High school musicals are not known for drawing crowds, yet when performance week arrived, the auditorium was packed, and at the finale the audience was cheering, whooping and crying.

For Les Misérables, Stadium received nominations in five categories from the Fifth Avenue Theater High School Musical Awards.  This was an honor.  But what, I asked Liz, was most rewarding?

“Building a team of people—students, parents, faculty,” she says, remembering.  “Impacting 84 students.   Showing them new possibilities.”

On stage and in hearts, Victor Hugo’s powerful story had been told right.

Merci, Maestro Christophe Chagnard

On Monday, March 23, 2015 the Tacoma News Tribune printed an article I wrote about my memories of working with Christophe Chagnard of the Northwest Sinfonietta.  I am posting the text of the article below.  If you’d like to see the article in the TNT’s online version, click here.  

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Maestro Christophe Chagnard

Last month Christophe Chagnard conducted his final performance with the Northwest Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra he co-founded 24 years ago.  The Sinfonietta will continue performing, led by visiting conductors, but Christophe’s adieu was a significant moment.  I was there in the Rialto Theater that night.  As Mozart’s music filled the auditorium, I thought back on my own experiences with the Sinfonietta:  planning and laughing and scheduling with Christophe, being paid in concert tickets for writing a book, keeping children out of the way of violin bows.  I am grateful to Christophe, not only for his artistry but for allowing me and a bunch of kids to share in it.

I was an elementary music teacher and spare-time writer in 2005 when the Sinfonietta decided to produce a children’s book.  A board member called me to ask if I’d consider writing a story about orchestra music.  I would work with a committee that included Christophe.  I thought about it.  Music and writing—what was there not to like?  And if these people had a vision for sharing music with children, then we were on the same side.

I had never worked with an orchestra conductor before, especially a French one, and at first I felt a little daunted.  Christophe seemed dubious about my first draft of the book.  I revised it.  The second draft, he acknowledged, was “much improved.”  The final proofs, enhanced by Todd Larsen’s lively illustrations and graphic artist Scott Warfield’s vibrant color layout, were beautiful.  Christophe and I both gave the nod, and The Orchestra in the Living Room went to press.  It became a gift to music lovers and music learners.

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That was not the end of the project.  In 2007 and 2008 the Sinfonietta produced The Orchestra in the Living Room as a children’s play.  I rewrote the story as a stage script, and Christophe selected music for some of the Sinfonietta members to play.  For the cast, we turned mainly to . . . my students.

I have to hand it to Christophe: he is willing to take risks.  Fourth and fifth graders are prone to colds, stage fright and unpredictability.  The first year of the play, we learned by trial and error.  The second year we were joined by an excellent director, Liz Jacobsen.  Liz brought a new level of zest and visual appeal to the play—but it meant shaking things up a bit.  The children were walking among the musicians, holding umbrellas over them and dashing across the stage.

“The musicians are concerned about poking the children with their bows,” Christophe told Liz and me.

So we made room for the children and the bows.  Not all adults are willing to make room, physically and mentally, for youngsters; but the musicians were good sports, and they were part of an orchestra that valued children’s musical growth.  Soon the musicians were smiling at the students in rehearsal, talking with them and remarking among themselves that these were good kids.

Those performances were seven and eight years ago, and I remain grateful for what my students experienced.  As orchestra music swirled around them, they discovered they liked Mozart and Bartok.  They stood on professional stages at Pantages and the Rialto, quelled their nerves and SPOKE UP.  They felt the glare of the stage lights and heard a real audience applaud them.  They were on a first-name basis with a maestro, and the maestro was part of the fun.

Last month after Christophe’s last Tacoma concert, the Sinfonietta hosted a farewell party for him in the lobby of Pantages.  There it was announced that the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation has established the Christophe Chagnard Scholarship Fund to assist young music students.  Music will be passed between generations in Christophe’s name.  It’s an honor he richly deserves.

Maestro Christophe Chagnard, for your 24 years of beautiful work, merci.