Monday, January 28, 2019

Staying True: A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Annie Golden and David Caudle

David Caudle and Annie Golden bring us "someplace very nice"

David Caudle and Annie Golden entered my classroom to the sound of enthusiastic, youthful applause over the dulcet tones of Annie's own voice singing Frank Mills from a 2004 Actors Fund concert version of HAIR. As they waved to the children and stepped to the front of the room Annie began singing along to the recording.

Now, to understand the impact of that moment you'd have to travel back in time a bit.

The dawning of the
Age of Aquarius 
Annie starred in the smash 1979 movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical HAIR. I saw the movie (beautifully directed by Milos Forman) when I was 15-years-old and fell in love with the energy, the attitude and the music. Afterwards, I saved to purchase the 8-track cartridge and listened to it over and over again in my little bedroom. My surroundings may have been small, but as I sang along with Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo, John Savage, Nell Carter, Donnie Dacus, and a bewitching Annie Golden, I felt part of something bigger, something magical. That 8-track is forever linked with my dreams of a more expansive relationship with the world beyond my bedroom walls. So, when Annie started singing, my younger self stared in wide-eyed wonder, while my present day self could barely contain the feels.

If listening to Annie harmonize with herself - right in front of me! - was any indication of how the rest of the visit was going to proceed, we were in for something spectacular. The vibe was already electric. NY1 and New York Teacher were on hand to document the visit for a television segment and newspaper article respectively. The photo below was shared as "Photo of the Week" by the United Federation of Teachers.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Fickies
Annie Golden reads Viva, the Vegan Fly Trap by David Caudle (center) accompanied by ASL interpreter Rachel Grunberg


The event was anchored in the beautiful words of David Caudle. David is a playwright and children's book author/illustrator visiting Broadway Books First Class for the second time. His first visit was in April 2016. At that time he read Bitsy the Heaviest Butterfly & Raff the Tenderest Reed, which is a sweet children's fable written by David with illustrations by Anastasia Traina.

It is an exquisite piece of storytelling that concludes with these words, "So the next time you see someone different from you, don't make fun as others in your pond might do. Make friends instead, and you'll have the last laugh, find strength in each other, like Bitsy and Raff."

This time David shared his latest children's book (read by Annie) entitled Viva the Vegan Fly Trap. VIVA espouses a timeless message about staying true to your convictions, even in the face of opposition.

David's work teaches children how to navigate relationships with integrity and kindness. These are lessons I hope they keep with them as they grow. It seems to me David strives to make the world a better place - one book at a time.

Both David and Annie joined me in celebrating literacy and the Arts for the preschool and second grade students in attendance. In addition to the positive message found in VIVA there was another powerful one that we revisited again and again - "You can be anything you want to be!" It began when Annie and David sat side-by-side displaying pictures of themselves as children.

Annie Golden with a photo of herself in First Grade and 
David Caudle holding a photo of himself at Age 7*

From there Annie shared her journey from lead singer of The Shirts (which headlined CBGB's in the late 70s) to appearing on Broadway to being discovered by Milos Forman for HAIR and a fascinating career that includes many ups (roles in Broadway shows [Leader of the Pack, Ah, Wilderness!, On the Town, The Full Monty, Violet], Stephen Sondheim writing her a song for ASSASSINS, a starring turn in the Netflix juggernaut ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) and some downs (auditions that did not lead to desired roles). This was Annie's story but the children made the important connections to themselves.

A child's Thank You card to David states,
Hearing Aid Day.
"We both have in common."
Those connections were explored further during the question and answer period following the reading. One child asked David if he was the only person in his family who is hard of hearing. David responded, "I discovered my deaf ear when I was in kindergarten when I couldn't hear a secret someone was whispering." As he continued one boy shot his arm in the air and announced, "That's how I found out!"

It has always been my mission with this program to give students an expanded sense of possibility by being able to see themselves reflected in the guest artists who visit. David certainly helped me achieve that.

The last question the children asked was for Annie, "Can you sing for us?" I held my breath as Annie smiled and said, "Of course". I had sent along the questions beforehand, so Annie was prepared. She took out the sheet music to BABY MINE from DUMBO (a lullaby well-suited to the occasion) and sang! Lordy! With that tune she sweetly placed the cherry on top of the delicious sundae of this visit!

After photographs and personalized messages written on books for each child, we said goodbye. And just like Annie and HAIR opened up the walls of my bedroom to the world beyond all those years ago, for the students who shared the morning with David and Annie, the walls of our school could not constrain the scope of their dreams.

Children hold copies of VIVA autographed by David Caudle and Annie Golden*
*Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno

Monday, January 21, 2019

An Artist's Responsibility

Tony Award Nominee Jonathan Freeman builds excitement for the Arts

What are the beliefs that fuel our actions? The motivation behind the decisions we make has been on my mind quite a bit lately. There are myriad possibilities for how to invest our time and the choice is ours to make. So, why do we choose one path over another? It has to rest with our thoughts about what is important. The actions we take give testament to those fundamental beliefs.

Jonathan Freeman as Jafar
Jonathan Freeman, who currently stars as Jafar in Disney's Aladdin on Broadway and voiced the role in the 1992 animated film, certainly lives his convictions.

"It is the artist's responsibility to give back to society" he told me during his follow up visit with the children of PS347. "In other parts of the world young people attend classical concerts and shows for free (or with discounted rates), we need to make them more accessible for young people here too."

The third grade students attended a performance of Aladdin at the legendary New Amsterdam Theater in December. It was the first time many of them experienced the magic of Broadway. What a perfect show to introduce them to Broadway! The children have been learning about Broadway through my program Broadway Books First Class since they were in first grade. To have an opportunity to attend Aladdin and then have a question and answer with one of the stars afterwards will hopefully establish a lifelong appreciation of the Arts.

Students learn about the intricacies of theater magic with Jonathan Freeman

In addition to the mechanics (i.e. makeup, costumes, staging) the children learned about the history of Aladdin. This includes the decisions that went into the development of the story, including the fact that there are no animals in the stage version. We also discussed the origin of the story of Aladdin from The Arabian Nights and the historical influences that shaped it. For example, it was set in China because thousands of years ago this was an exotic, distant place and things like magic lamps and flying carpets could not really be disputed.

Jonathan wrapped up his visit by talking about the impact live theater has on us.

He told us, "Almost any show that you see live is going to have the same or similar effect on you. It attacks your emotions in a lot of different ways and your creative minds. And that's what's important about live performance, like I said whether its music, dance, acting, singing, it's important. So, I am very happy that you came."

So are we Jonathan! So are we!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Cal

Two weeks ago I was standing in my backyard a little after midnight gazing up at the sky.

The air was crisp. The sky was clear. I was struck by the beauty of the stars shining brightly above me. It was a moment to capture and to share. I ran into the house to get Ed, who came outside to marvel at the beauty of it all with me - or rather, with us.

It was because of our Saint Bernard, Cal, that we were out there in the first place. Cal's vision was failing and he needed support doing his outside business, so one of us was always there with him. And in return for our help, he gave us the gift of this spectacular expanse of sky.

Cal brought me moments like this quite often. During the "summer of my dissertation" when I spent months sweating in front of my computer, sometimes the only time I left the house was to take him out for a walk on the towpath.

Cal smiling for the camera during his walk on the Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath

Although it was a break I would never have taken on my own, I always ended up appreciating the opportunity to stroll in nature with my sweet, sweet puppy. Sometimes my great nephew Easton would join us and we'd throw sticks into the canal or blow bubbles and watch them drift until they suddenly popped. All the while Cal sniffed the air or dug at the ground with his paw.

They were moments I'd try to hold onto, but it's impossible to make anything last forever. So, I did the next best thing. I etched them in my memory. Even though happy memories can bring sadness when they come with an aching heart.

Yesterday, Cal took his final walk.


He woke me up at 4 in the morning. In his old age (approx. 10) he often woofed me awake at odd hours, so it was not unusual. Although a few hours later he was at it again and that was unusual. I arrived at the top of the stairs to see him standing in the foyer looking back at me. I noted to myself how adorable he looked with his ears flopping like a stuffed animal. We went out and he tried to cough something up, but was unproductive. As I held him up I noticed he felt very large. His stomach distended in a way I never felt before. There was a light dusting of snow covering the ground and he plopped into it. I couldn't get him to stand up again.

What was this about?

Ed said it might be bloat because Saint Bernards are susceptible to it. We googled symptoms - they matched - and then this terrifying line, "If you think your dog has bloat, get him to a clinic right away. If dogs don't get treatment in time, the condition can kill them." 

We immediately loaded Cal into my mini cooper (big dog, little car) and sped off. Long story short, it was bloat. His body was shutting down and he was already in shock by the time they took an x-ray. Decisions had to be made and the compassionate choice (according to the vet) given his age and quality of life was to let him go.

Ugh! We were there when it happened. Surprisingly fast. Emotionally devastating. We held him and kissed him and made sure he felt our presence. Although, in his physical state, who knows.

He was with us for 7 years and 3 days.

The gentle Calligator sharing a blanket with Easton

I hope to come to a place where I can move past this pain and remember him resting his paw on my leg while he snored. In those moments - and there were many - our world was at peace and we were surrounded by love. It's perhaps better to have loved and lost then to never have loved at all, but the pain of loss is almost unbearable.

We love you Cal. I'm sorry I couldn't keep you safe.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Aladdin on Broadway!

"You ain't never had a friend like me!"

A few weeks ago I sat in Broadway's beautiful New Amsterdam Theater surrounded by my former students watching an ASL interpreted performance of Disney's ALADDIN. As the show unfolded on the stage, my gaze often fell upon the smiling, rapturous faces of the children enveloped in theater magic. Each child sitting comfortably beside Mom or Dad with expressions of open-mouthed awe or playful giggles as they bopped along in their seats to the thump, thump, thump of the orchestra.

For most of them - children and adults - this was the first time experiencing the color, energy, and razzle-dazzle that is the "spectacular spectacular" of Broadway. At intermission the children ran up to give me hugs and thanks because the evening would never have happened without Broadway Books First Class. We all gathered for this performance as an extension of Jonathan Freeman's guest artist visit back in October 2017.

Students gather around Jonathan Freeman in October 2017

Jonathan plays Jafar in the Broadway musical. He also voiced the role in Disney's 1992 animated blockbuster. He worked with me to help realize one of my dreams for the program, which was getting the children to a Broadway theater to fully make the connection between the classroom visits and the work our guests do. The children watched in wonder at Jonathan's transformation as Jafar and felt great pride when he shot us a smile and a wave during the curtain call. We all are indebted to this thoughtful man for making the evening possible.

Students gather in front of the stage curtain at ALADDIN in December 2018

My teaching philosophy has always begun with the belief that my first priority is ensuring that my students look forward to coming to school every day. From that starting point we can create a positive learning environment that incorporates mutual respect and trust. It is from there that lasting memories are made. I have no doubt that this experience will live on in the minds of these children and I cannot wait to see where the program takes us all in 2019.

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