Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Jonathan Freeman

We rubbed Aladdin's lamp and our wish came true!
We spent a morning with Tony Award nominee (and Disney's Jafar)
Jonathan Freeman

Broadway Books First Class opened Year Three this October with a magical visit from Broadway guest artist Jonathan Freeman. Jonathan has worked steadily on the Broadway stage for the past 43 years and was even nominated for a Tony Award for his role in She Loves Me, but he is perhaps best known for his vocal performances - most notably Jafar in Disney's Aladdin.

Jonathan is also heretofore credited with (unknowingly) guiding Broadway Books First Class through rough waters after some unexpected changes occurred at the close of Year Two.  

Last June, the misguided machinations of the administrative upper echelon almost brought the curtain down on my passion project. Their decision to assign me to teach preschool, instead of my beloved first grade, left me scrambling to figure out how to keep the integrity of the program intact. My vision for the program was for the visits to include my students.  How would a class of 4-year-olds sit for a read aloud and a discussion?

Luckily, I had a very kid-friendly performer waiting in the wings to usher in Year Three.

In addition to Aladdin (on stage and in the movies), Jonathan's resume includes Broadway roles in Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins.

And his voice can be heard in the long-running children's television series Shiny Time Station, Hercules, and Lilo and Stitch: The Series (among others).

Jonathan's artistic oeuvre hinted at his capacity to embrace the wee ones and, in turn, provided an entry point from which to immediately hook a young audience. All of this prompted me to expand the scope of the program to include more students. So, Year Three's premiere saw my energetic preschoolers joined by the darling second graders.

Students introduce themselves to Jonathan Freeman in American Sign Lanuage

I began to prepare for the visits long before Jonathan arrived. This included inviting the second graders to become "Book Buddies" with the younger children. Each morning, four of the second graders would join us to sit and read books in my classroom. This allowed time for everyone to become comfortable with one another and familiar with the environment. It also promoted excitement about literacy. The older children gained confidence in their reading abilities while the younger ones built up happy experiences around shared literacy events.  

The classes worked separately too.

I read children's books about the theater to my preschool class, including Backstage Cat by Harriet Ziefert and Amadina by Sergio Ruzzier. They learned about various aspects of showbiz and the language associated with theater (e.g., scenery, props, etc.).

In both classes we studied Jonathan's work. I brought in artifacts (i.e., Playbills) from the shows he's appeared in and discussed the storylines from several of the musicals. I made connections to other Broadway Books First Class visitors (the program was recommended to Jonathan by Mary Testa and Nathan Lane) and, of course, showed video clips from Aladdin.

Armed with this background knowledge each class brainstormed a list of questions for Jonathan and we selected four to ask during his visit.

I also worked with Jonathan and his lovely, helpful friend Karen to coordinate the visit.

Jonathan suggested an Aladdin Golden Book for the read aloud. He even brought 30 autographed copies and showcards for every student!

This was incredibly kind and exceedingly generous. I knew it would be a spectacular visit. And it was!

The day finally arrived and everyone gathered together in anticipation of Jonathan's arrival. There were cheers when he stepped into my classroom (from the adults and children alike).

I've read that whenever Jonathan meets new fans they always ask him to "Talk like Jafar" and this crowd was no exception. Personally, I wanted to hear him growl, "Prince ABooBoo". He acquiesced and it brought me so much joy!

After introductions, Jonathan settled in to read alongside American Sign Language interpreter Kathleen Taylor.

Jonathan and Kathleen in a dramatic reading of ALADDIN
(One of my favorite interpreting pictures ever!)


We had a front row seat to exquisite storytelling from Jafar himself! Everyone was engaged and throughout the story children passionately interjected, which was met with good-humored quips from Jonathan.

One student, Joey, could barely contain his excitement and asked several times, "Can I tell you something?" Jonathan, who kept things moving with a smile, responded with, "Can I tell you something?" and continued reading.

After the reading Jonathan laughingly turned to Joey and innocently asked, "Did you want to tell me something?"

Jonathan Freeman reads student-created questions

In the question and answer segment that followed Jonathan stressed the importance of working collaboratively with others throughout the creative process. He noted that it takes about 150 people to make Aladdin run smoothly and that any theater production requires many parts working together.

He shared stories of starting out as Jafar 25 years ago and how his journey with the character allows him meet folks like us. His warmth, patience and humor were very endearing. He spent time with each child and happily chatted with the adults in the room, who loved him as much as the children did.

Students enjoy signed copies of ALADDIN courtesy of Jonathan Freeman

As I walked Jonathan and Karen down to the lobby they said that they would like to try to arrange for the children to see Aladdin on Broadway. This is a HUGE logistical undertaking on both ends but Jonathan is currently working with Disney and the House Manager to figure it all out.

Meanwhile, he sent the class a copy of the beautiful, clothbound book The Road to Broadway and Beyond Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World.

And I sent him a collection of thank you cards created by the children.

As Year Three of Broadway Books First Class continues I am extremely grateful that it began with Mr. Jonathan Freeman.

There are moments when you must listen to the universe and allow the tenets of the words "Follow Your Bliss" to wash over and direct you. This program is influenced by good people.

Jonathan, I thank you!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

SiriusXM "On Broadway" Interview

This summer I was interviewed on SiriusXM Satellite Radio by the Amaaaaazing Seth Rudetsky about Broadway Books First Class.

There were some delays getting started and by the time we sat down I was feeling a bit nervous, but Seth is certainly excellent at keeping things lively, interesting and on track.

It was such an honor to share the program with a larger audience and give thanks to the wonderful performers who've so willingly supported it.

The interview was broadcast on Stars (Channel 109), Entertainment Weekly (Channel 105) and On Broadway (Channel 72) in September.

I typed up a transcript of the interview so my friends who are deaf/hard of hearing have equal access and figured I would share it here as well.

Seth: Hi everyone.  This is a special edition of Seth Speaks because we had a technical malfunction and instead of cancelling the show we are continuing with my guest but my audience is literally in a separate room where they can sort of see me through 2 panes of glass, yes, they are waving frantically and they can hear me and I can hear through an ambient microphone their fake laughter – audience let me hear it. (Audience laughs) Just as fake as every week.  Excellent.  And cut!  Alright, for my first guest I have a Dock-ter but he’s not here to talk about that weird lump on my shoulder.  He’s here to talk about his amazing Broadway program for literally first graders. Dr. Gary Wellbock?
Gary: Wellbrock, yes.
Seth:  Still got it.  Not Jewish. Okay, so what exactly is this program?  From what I read about it it sounds amazing but describe it to my audience.
Gary: Sure.  It’s called Broadway Books First Class.
Seth: Already I like it, it has the word Broadway in it.  Keep Going.
Gary: (laughs) Basically at its core it’s a pretty simple idea but the concepts that support it are more complex.  So, what I do is I invite Broadway performers into my classroom to read a book and answer about 3 questions about life in the theater, life as an artist. 
Seth: So you bring like Patti Lupone to read her autobiography “Glenn Close stole my role!” And the first graders literally enjoy it?
Gary: Ahhh, I would love that.  And I’d make sure the children put away their cell phones before she came to the classroom.
Seth: (laughs) Exactly. Da Da Da Da Da Da – Reference! Wait, what kind of books do these Broadway people read?
Gary: The books are high-quality children’s books.
Seth: Oh, they’re children’s books.  I see.
Gary: Yeah, children’s books.  And, they’re read…the kids that I teach are Deaf and hearing and hard of hearing.
Seth: Oh, I didn’t know that part.
Gary: Oh, yeah.  I try to make sure that I have a nice balance of Deaf performers and hearing performers and the performers who are hearing, when they come in there is an interpreter that sits beside them..
Seth (interjects): Wow
Gary: and interprets the book.
Seth: And so, I guess the question is, “Why bring in a Broadway performer just to give my version of the story?”  I used to, for a long time I performed for these AIDS patients in hospitals and it is amazing when I bring Broadway performers but so many non-famous people are amazing and when I would bring in a Broadway performer they’d be like, “You’re good” like it was no different, they wouldn’t care if you were a Broadway star or not.  Aren’t the kids like, “We don’t know who you are Dame Judi Dench”.
Gary: Well, I think that would happen if it was just a one-time event where someone would come into the classroom and read a book but that’s not how it happens.  I really try to reach out beyond the walls of my classroom to have New York…the whole idea is that New York is this great cultural center so I try to take advantage of what’s going on here.  And when I have a performer come in, say Alison Fraser
Seth: The original Trina in Falsettos, well, March of the Falsettos…go on…
Gary: We’ll talk about her work for a week or two prior…
Seth:  You mean, you and the kids will?
Gary: Yeah, yeah
Seth: And they are like, 6-years-old?
Gary: Yeah, six, seven, seven-years-old.
Seth: Aren’t they like, “What’s Equity?” How do they understand anything?
Gary: Well, we have discussions about that.  I really let them lead the discussion and, you know, I start with Googling Alison Fraser or Bryce Pinkham and we have a discussion about that.  What really helps is if I am really into that performer.
Seth: Of course
Gary: Like Alison Fraser, I love her work so much.
Seth: Yeah, she’s amazing.
Gary: So that I am able to talk about what she did in Romance/Romance or The Secret Garden so one day we just talk about The Secret Garden and all of those things play into what the kids are going to bring into the conversation.
Seth: So, even if they’re musical theater stars and a lot of the kids are hearing impaired it doesn’t matter that they can’t necessarily hear them singing.
Gary: No.  And Elizabeth Ward Land, I don’t know if you know…
Seth: I know Elizabeth Ward
Gary: She came in and she sang a song.  Alison Fraser sang a song. Most of the kids in my class are CODAs, that means they are Children of Deaf Adults so their first language is American Sign Language so the interaction there is that they can obviously hear but I have the support of the interpreter there to make sure that their first language is covered.
Seth: Wait a minute, so the kids are actually hearing. So, what’s the ratio of the kids in your class of hearing vs. not hearing?
Gary: I have 21 kids and 17 of them are CODAs.  That means most of them are children of Deaf adults.
Seth: But they themselves can hear?
Gary: Yes
Seth: And then the other children are Deaf?
Gary: Deaf or hard of hearing, right.
Seth: I see. What an interesting combination. What kind of school is this?
Gary: It’s a dual language school.
Seth: I see.
Gary: We do spoken English and written English and then ASL – American Sign Language.
Seth: Oh, it’s all so creative on so many different levels. So, you have these Broadway performers come in and perform and read these books. What I like about it is I’ve met so many Broadway stars who say it wasn’t until they were 20 that they realize they could have a career as a Broadway…like “We didn’t know you could get paid for being on Broadway” So I love that you are telling these 6-year-olds from the very beginning that you can actually have a job as an actor because a lot of people don’t realize that.
Gary: Yeah, and if anything else it’s an appreciation of the Arts, right?
Seth: Exactly
Gary: They live in NYC so I want not only to build maybe somebody who might be a performer but to build an audience so Broadway keeps going.
Seth:  I know. It drives me crazy that so many people that actually live in NY don’t go to Broadway.  I love that you’re doing this. Who decides on the books?  You do?
Gary: The original idea was that I would have the performers bring up a book that maybe they loved from childhood that was a favorite but that didn’t really go over.
Seth: Why not?
Gary: Nobody really had a big suggestion or they were more hesitant…
Seth: I sure do
Gary: …about bringing something in. Well, I have a book idea for you too.  I want you to come.
Seth: What? I want to bring in my own book!
Gary: Oh, you could do that.  But, I got you this book right here.
Seth: Oh, this is the book. Oh, hold on.  Let me see it then. I’m unwrapping on the air because people love dead air. Okay, so hold on.  It’s so well wrapped.  Did you wrap this yourself?
Gary: Yeah, yeah.
Seth: I am the worst wrapper.  I am super depressed.  Okay, so this is the sound of paper tearing. (Opens present) Audience can you verify that I am unwrapping and it’s not some bad sound effect?  The back is beautiful.  Ahhhh, this would be a good book for me.  Audience look It’s called The Bear and the Piano. 
Gary: Do you know that one?
Seth: No, I don’t know it at all. OMG, it’s so lovely.
Gary: Yeah, it’s a beautiful book.  It’s about learning to play the piano and it’s about going off and following your dreams and coming home again to the people that love you.
Seth: It’s a more sensitive book. Mine that I’m obsessed with is Nosey Mrs. Rat.  Do you know that book?
Gary: No, I don’t.
Seth: It is hilarious. It’s about a Be-yitch of a rat who is really snoopy and she literally has helium balloons so she can float up and look through the windows of her neighbors, she’s such a bitch (laughs).  Anyway, but this one is much more sensitive The Bear and the Piano. It’s so beautiful too.
Gary: No, if you come you can read whatever you want. You know, I would love that.
Seth: I love the illustrations in this.  So, this is…I am trying to think of how people can adapt this.  They don’t always have Broadway performers so how would you adapt this to another city?
Gary: Well, what I…the idea is to take what you have in your community…
Seth:  Ahhh
Gary: …and make the most of it.  So, at the very least teachers can invite parents in to read a book. And it’s about building excitement for literacy.  It’s about kids wanting to come to school. You know, when I was little if there was an event I was more excited to go to school.
Seth: Totally
Gary: And obviously I am someone who loves school in the first place but I remember waking up early and really wanting to come to school and I want to give that to the kids I teach.
Seth: So you build it up. You don’t just say, “They’re coming today” You build it up weeks in advance.
Gary: Yeah, weeks in advance.  And then we talk about it afterwards.  Right now they are very theatrically wise.  Michael Urie was in…
Seth: Ah, he’s so great.
Gary: Yes, he was.  He was fantastic.  He was the last one, the last guest we had this year.  Right before him was Julianne Moore and Nathan Lane…
Seth: NATHAN LANE! Did he scare the kids with a loud voice?
Gary: No, No and I was hoping he would (audience laughs) but he didn’t.  But the kids became very theatrically wise so they went off script because most of the time I ask them to come up with three questions, which we develop and we kinda stick to that but by the time he came they were asking him, “Do you have any Tony Awards?” “Do you know…”
Seth: Oh, so they hurt his feelings. Wonderful. (laughter) He has to say, “No, I don’t” It’s very kind of you. Do not ask me that question if I come because I’ll be literally devastated.  (laughs).
Gary: (laughs) Okay
Seth: So, in conclusion…Okay, this particular program is called
Gary: Broadway Books First Class
Seth: Broadway Books First Class.  Oh, I get it First Class.  And you can develop it in your community and how can people contact you to just say, “How do you actually do it?” Do you have a website or something?
Gary: Yeah, it’s Broadway Books First Class dot com
Seth: Oh, that’s easy
Gary: And there’s a tab where it says “Contact” and you can send me an email and I’ll get that and I’d love to talk to people about it.
Seth: And there’s no apostrophe in Broadway’s books?
Gary: No, no
Seth: Wait, Broadway Books.  I see, Broadway Books Fist Class dot com.  It’s such a great idea.  And get this book it’s so beautiful it’s called The Bear and the Piano or Nosey Mrs. Rat, which is hilarious. Alright, thank you Dr.!
Gary: Thank you so much.  I appreciate it.
Seth: Applause from the audience in the next room.  Excellent fake applause people.


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