In April 1978, the very first performance dedicating the brand new Froelicher Theatre was Pirates, the classic 19th century comic opera about a young pirate, young love, and the unintended consequences of Leap Year.
It’s been 42 years since the theater opened, and the Middle School performance of Pirates was one of the last in the space before it is razed to make room for the Leach Center for the Performing Arts. The Pirates of Penzance is the alpha and the omega—what a wonderful, intentional way to honor the long history of Froelicher Theatre!
Except, it wasn’t intentional. “It’s just a crazy coincidence,” says Director James Meehan.
“It was as though somebody put the thought in my head, but I didn’t know that Pirates was the first play ever done in the Froelicher.”
The play turns on a single plot twist—Leap Year. Coincidentally, 2020 is a Leap Year—and the play closed on (you guessed it) February 29. None of that occurred to Meehan when he chose it. All he had in mind was the timeless appeal of the show.
“Gilbert and Sullivan were the clever social commentators of their time,” he says. “They spoke truth to power. If they were alive today, they would be writing Hamilton.”
Living up to the legacy
The CA students cast in the 2020 Pirates didn’t seem to notice they are performing an opera that had its debut 141 years ago, a true tribute to the time-transcending appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Eighth Grader Hero Clinemills, who played Major-General Stanley, called the plot a “cool story.” She confessed that she had been doing some mouth and tongue exercises to warm up before her show-stopping number, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”
Nora Knight, Grade 8, is a fan of modern musicals but called Pirates “fun.” She played Ruth, Pirate Maid-of-all-Work. “I love comedic roles,” she says. “I go over the top and everyone laughs.”
Seventh Grader Margie Timmers had her eye on the role of Mabel from the start. “I’m usually typecast in an emotional dramatic role,” she says. “I’ve never done comedy, so doing this vain character is new and different.”
Sydney Leach, Grade 8, has a long history with Pirates. It’s the first live performance of a musical she saw (at age four) and it became a favorite family soundtrack around her house. She loved playing the Pirate King. “He’s the best character, because he runs around singing about himself,” she says. “All the characters are larger than life and funny in a way that is so obvious, it’s ridiculous.”
When today’s students learned they are coming to the end of the Froelicher Theatre’s run with a performance that opened it, they were struck by the symmetry. “We are coming full circle,” says Hero. “We are ending in the same place the theater started,” adds Margie. “We are living up to the legacy of those early performers, even if it wasn’t intentional.”
Alumna remembers ‘a great highlight of my life’
One significant difference in the 2020 performance was that the Head of School was not cast in a lead role. In 1978, the student performers had to be careful not to steal the scene from Head of School Frank Wallace, who was cast as Major-General Stanley.
“He was great in the role, so it would have been hard to upstage him,” says Gordon Smith ’79. “It was neat to see the Headmaster as a fellow actor.”
Pirates was Smith’s first performance, and he recalls being a bit of a “deer in the headlights,” trying to figure out what he was doing. He describes himself as having an “okay voice” but generally being pretty average. Yet, 42 years later, he still recalls the play as a “wonderful experience.”
“I remember singing songs that were so much fun,” he says. “I so enjoyed spending time with my friends and teachers outside of a school hierarchy and seeing them in an entirely different light.”
Gary English ‘78, who played the lead role, Frederic, in 1978, can still remember having Duain Wolfe and Cindy (Sheppard) Jordan as his vocal coaches. “They did such a great job,” English says. “I wasn’t one of the big talents, and they knew what they had in me. They worked with me, above and beyond regular rehearsal time.”
At the same time he was performing, English was the starting goalie on the Varsity Lacrosse team headed to state playoffs. “As a goalie, my job was to scream to the defensemen,” he says. “Duain and Cindy literally taught me how to use my vocal chords to yell, so I could still sing in the performance.”
English remembers Cathy Markle ‘78, who played Mabel, as the big talent in the show. Markle vividly recalls the production. “It was a great highlight of my life,” she says. “The Met just did a production of Pirates on a live Saturday broadcast. I sang along with every word!”
English, who says he would give his performance a solid “C,” says he values CA for encouraging students to try activities that stretched their boundaries, because it’s a chance to “learn about yourself.”
“The thing it did for me is that to this day, music has always touched me,” he says. “I listen to all kinds of different music and find it inspiring. Until later, you don’t realize what youth gives you—lungs, a strong diaphragm, and a really fun time.”
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