Our story begins two months following the Newtown tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Michael Baroody, MD, a resident of Newtown, met Michael Unger, a NYC director, and the concept of providing the community with a high-level production to both challenge and strengthen those effected began to develop. It was vital for the children in the community to understand that although something terrible happened to them, they still have the power and strength within to overcome life’s challenges. No matter how many times you tell someone who is broken that they will get through this or that everything will be ok, they won’t believe it until they prove it to themselves. Therefore, the first step was for them to heal through the arts but do so in a demanding, rigorous way as to give them the opportunity to prove to themselves that they are strong.
Ninety-eight percent of the time, if you wandered into one of our rehearsals, you would have no idea that our community had suffered the unimaginable horrors of December 14th, 2012. And that is a great thing. These are eighty-two smiling, eager, dedicated, excited kids ranging from the ages of five to eighteen. With a resilience that restores faith in humanity, these kids (and our community) are moving forward.
Every once in a while our artistic director, Michael Unger, would speak with one of them about connecting to their character in a more natural way. It is important that the participants don’t simply act on stage but rather learn to express themselves in a cathartic way. I would learn that, say, during those discussions, Michael learned more about their lives, for example, one was the babysitter, another a tutor and another a neighbor. We also had about twenty children in the young ensemble and one heroic teacher who were in Sandy Hook Elementary the day of the shooting.
Something amazing happened in rehearsal one day. MichaelI often spoke of how perfect “Seussical” was for this place, in this time, with these people. The story of hope, loyalty, staying true to yourself and protecting what is important to you could not have been written more aptly than for our community, even though it premiered in 2000. Yesterday, it was as if Ahrens and Flaherty wrote “Seussical” for us.
We were working on the section of the show where Horton, who had promised to protect the Whos on their drifting dust speck, lost them. The love of his life, although he doesn’t know it yet, Gertrude, who spent seven weeks searching for the lost clover on which Horton placed the Whos, returns it to him, safe and sound. Horton then makes his second promise to protect them – one that, this time, he will never, ever break. He is given a rare, second chance.
The high school performer who was playing Horton during this rehearsal was delivering the material as if he were reading it rather than writing it – he was not LIVING in the role and, therefore, transported neither him nor us. I told him that his promise to this dust speck, this time, had to be an ABSOLUTE commitment – that he had failed them before but that he had now learned his lesson. He was given a rare second chance.
Michael went on to tell the cast that he picked Seussical for very specific reasons, mentioned above. He told them that even though he knew it was the perfect show for this summer, he was amazed every day of just how perfect. This musical is about hope and joy – and even though horrible things happen in the world, hope and joy are a necessary part of moving on.
Michael explained that if you don’t connect to your character in a natural way, you sometimes have to use your own history as your character’s history. He told this particular actor that the dust speck and the Whos ARE Newtown. The world failed to protect Newtown one day and it is our duty to those who were lost and should be our promise to all those around us that we will never let Newtown down again. He went on to say that this show is one step in that process of promise and healing; that if we are truthful to the show, it speaks to the exact kind of healing and protection Newtown (and the world) needs now and forever. “Protect that dust speck as if you were protecting your hometown. Because it is and you are.”
By this time, there were lots of tears and hugs spreading around the room. Yes, filled with painful memories, but also filled with a profoundly deep understanding of the power of the performing arts in general and the power of “Seussical” in specific. Theodor Geisel (A.K.A. Dr. Seuss) wrote profound things in a way that even the tiniest minds could understand. We had all come to a new understanding of what we were actually doing here.
Michael then said, “Let’s try it again.” This time, the actor playing Horton could barely make it through his promise to the Whos without bursting into tears. In fact, his struggle NOT to break down was as beautiful as his ability to touch the true emotion of the scene. It was one of the purest acting moments Michael has ever seen. He was distraught, not acting distraught. This young man was literally crying out to save everyone in Newtown, even those who are no longer here. Then something else happened that was very special. The actors playing the nasty Wickersham Monkeys and Bird Girls begin to ridicule Horton for being such a fool on such a foolish mission. They steal his dust speck, intending to boil it in Beezlenut oil. These young performers, who moments earlier had been holding each other in tears, were struggling to be mean to the empathic, gentle, caring, loyal character who represented all of them. Yet they had to overcome that intuitive tenderness to play mean. Watching that struggle in each of them was incredible because they had to work so hard to convince themselves to be nasty and when Horton finally had the strength and determination to make the HUGE trumpeting elephant noise that transforms their characters, the relief they had in being allowed to let the facade of their characters down was second only to the understanding of the healing that was going on for all of us. Art and life can intertwine to open us all to the deeper questions. We all had a new understanding of how we must fight to protect each other and that we must embrace what makes us different so that fear does not divide us.
As we went into a break one of the actresses playing a Bird Girl collapsed in tears in Michael’s arm’s. That started him going as well and he told her that we cannot undo what was done. We cannot turn back time. But we can show the world that this community can, and WILL, go on to let their joy stamp out the sorrow. Just as important, each one of them is helping heal their families and friends, not only by doing this funny, heartfelt, hopeful, joyous show, but also by allowing themselves to lose themselves in it; to let “Seussical” be THEIR story.
Michael then told them that when authors Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty come to see the show, they will not see the fanciest, most polished “Seussical” with the most sophisticated sets and upscale production values, but he would bet that they will see their show have an impact they could never have imagined when they were writing it. And if they did imagine it, they will see tangible proof of their joyous and disproportionately profound efforts proving how theatre can not only transport a room full of hundreds of spectators, but how it can also transform the performers who learned that day NOT what it means to ACT on stage – but what it means to BE on stage.