No one is indispensable.
“If I dropped dead today, Carousel would go on,” Robert Frisch told his sophomore drama class. Some girls giggled nervously; others gave their teacher slightly suspicious looks, unsure of how to interpret such a statement.
Fortunately, Frisch was in good health, plagued only by a slight cold. In all likelihood, the gray-haired director would make it to “his” premiere of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical in the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts concert hall three days later on March 29.
Frisch — tall, slender and completely dressed in black — expressed the somewhat morbid sentiment only to support his explanation of his “orange and blue” casting method. Two students, one in the orange cast and one in the blue, are assigned to play the main characters. The orange cast performs Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, and the blue cast is on stage Friday and Saturday night.
The drama teacher established that policy a couple of years ago so he always had actors ready to go even if a student actor forgot his lines or got suspended right before showtime.
“It’s an insurance policy for the production,” Frisch said during a quiet moment in the sophomore drama class.
The Carousel production brought many “firsts” to the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Long Island City, Queens. The arts high school with more than 700 students had staged musicals before, but this was the first one with lighting and set designers from outside the school. It was also the first time Frisch and and orchestra conductor Heidi Best had directed a musical at the school. The student participants onstage and backstage were a mix of musical veterans and newbies, hailing from all six of the high school’s studios, such as drama, vocal or fine arts.
With productions like Carousel, the school aims to give its students a solid preparation for entering show business. Many of the young actors, dancers and backstage workers aspire to a career in the arts, no matter how insecure job prospects might be. For them, Frank Sinatra is the first stepping stone. Their teachers must balance providing support and encouragement, and making them aware of the hardships that come with a job on Broadway or in Hollywood.
“Show business comes down to natural ability, proper training, and the ability to withstand the lifestyle: uncertainty, insecurity, financial instability,” Frisch said. “Over a certain period of time, the majority of people usually quit.”
A week before Carousel opened, quitting was the farthest thing from the minds of everyone involved. Frisch ran a day-long run-through, so that the stage crew knew exactly when to rush which props where, and Will Noguchi, a third-year lighting design student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, knew where to point his spotlights in every scene.
“Today is a great day– focus!” Frisch told the group of around 40 students who stared up at him on the stage in the school’s Tony Bennett Concert Hall. “In the midst of all these creative energies, I don’t want you to lose your performances. Ignore the stuff that’s going on around you.”
The “stuff” Frisch referred to was controlled by Andrea Torres, 18, the first-time stage manager of the production. The wiry, energetic senior from Long Island City worked as an electrician in previous Frank Sinatra productions, but had never had this much responsibility. When she wasn’t on stage moving props around during the run-through, she sat just outside the audience’s view backstage, with a headset perched on her dark curls that let her communicate with the rest of her stage crew, Noguchi, or orchestra conductor Best.
After graduation this summer, Torres plans to jump into stage directing with both feet.
“There’s an opening at a studio across the street for stage manager, and I’m applying for that,” Torres said. While she’s aware that the job of her choice doesn’t offer as much stability as teaching, her dream job before she was bitten by the theater bug, she is going forward confidently.
“I’m worried, but I’m not losing sleep over it,” she said. “A scared heart is not getting anything achieved.”
During the run-through, Torres exuded that same confidence when she gave cues to the actors to enter the stage, hissed at them to be quiet when they were waiting in the wings, or just plain yelled “Hold!” until everyone stopped what they were doing. Then she could pass on what Frisch wanted changed, or put her crew into place for placing a bench on stage in a wrong angle.
“Communication is so important, because if I can’t communicate properly, things don’t go well,” Torres said. “I need to communicate the director’s views to the actors, and the actors’ problems. I combine the actors and the crew together.”
The earphones that helped her communicate were plugged into a stationary radio system, and had become so much a part of her that she sometimes forgot they were there. At one point when she wanted to run on stage to adjust the angle of the bench, she was startled when she was pulled back by the cord. She chuckled, took the headset off, and put the prop where it belonged.
John Sakelos, 18, was having a great day. Not only was he secure and confident in the orange cast’s run-through as lead character Billy Bigelow, he had also just learned the night before that he had been accepted into the University of Michigan’s elite musical theater program.
“I want to practice my art every morning when I wake up,” Sakelos said. “If I can do that, I don’t have to work a day in my life.”
“I’m definitely afraid of being unemployed but I’ve resigned to the fact that I will do this as a career,” Sakelos added later. “I’m headstrong and stubborn enough. You gotta stick it out.”
“It’s tough,” said Best, also the vocal director of Carousel. “The kids that really want it, they go for it.” She said that sometimes, the parents are more anxious about the future than the students themselves. One mother came to Best with the same question at every parent-teacher conference for three years: Are you sure this is the right thing for my daughter?
“I finally convinced her in her daughter’s senior year,” Best said with a laugh. “The girl’s now at Mannes, the New School’s conservatory!”
Strutting the stage in a white t-shirt, tall, self-assured Sakelos channeled Billy almost perfectly during the run-through. He only became visibly frustrated when forced not to move. Noguchi took time to stage the first moment of Carousel, when the overture plays and the main characters stand frozen in a pose. Sakelos first had his left leg propped up on a stool, then was ordered to switch sides and use his right one. Then Frisch told him to fully stand on the stool. Every position followed seemingly endless minutes of lighting adjustments. At one point, Sakelos just dropped his arms and sighed so loudly that he could be heard in the back of the concert hall.
Frisch didn’t seem phased by the stress of putting on his first musical. During his sophomore drama class, after rehearsal was over, he suddenly burst into song for a few seconds, laughed loudly, then said, “That was ‘Why must the show go on’ by Noel Coward. You should look it up!”
The show did, of course, go on. The March 29 premiere went “very well,” according to Frisch. The March 31 performance was another highlight for the director because of a very special audience member: his mother, Mary Burns, who had traveled all the way from Wisconsin to see his Carousel.
Sitting in a wheelchair at the back of the concert hall, Burns’ pride in her son was hard to miss. She said she thoroughly enjoyed the production and praised Frisch’s teaching skills, before chatting about his theater background.
“You know that he was an actor and singer on Broadway?” Burns asked eagerly. Frisch took his first steps in the theater world at age 9, as the umbrella boy in The King and I. “The whole neighborhood came down to see him,” Burns said. “That was the beginning of his love affair with the theater.”
After two-and-a-half hours, two acts, and 18 songs, the student actors in Carousel took their bow in front of an exultant audience.
Sakelos reveled in the spotlight one last time. The following Monday, he said he had just one regret: “I only wish we could have run for three or four weeks.”