Brett Boles and Van Dean
It begins in hate and ends in love. Out of one of the most horrendous moments in anyone’s lifetime – the Sandy Hook, Conn., murder of 20 children and 6 adults – arises one of the most rewarding couple of hours. Titled “From Broadway With Love” (available on DVD, Blu-ray and CD), it’s a concert that took place at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn., Jan. 28 of last year, just over a month after the tragedy.
It’s not what you expect: moving, yes, but neither solemn nor morbid, a celebration not a memorial. From its opening, “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” led by actor Robin de Jesus, to its finale, “One Voice,” the evening captures a spirit of survival. Yes, there are tears. But, remarkably, the concert is anything but sentimental.
The brainchild of Newtown composer/lyricist/librettist Brett Boles and Stamford theater and record producer Van Dean began with a Facebook notice asking for participants. Hundreds volunteered both to perform and work behind the scenes.
“It completely changed my life,” said Dean. “I didn’t know what to expect going in. I just felt I had to do it. I was in complete dismay for what was happening and thought ‘What can I do to help?’”
Boles, who grew up and went to public schools in Newtown, felt the same. “I came back after college to teach piano and acting to a lot of kids in this town,” he said. “My wife was a substitute teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary so obviously what happened hit home pretty hard. I needed to do something.”
The “something” is the one-night-only benefit concert they devised, a gathering of professionals and amateurs with a full orchestra and chorus that echoed the proud banner: “We choose love.”
More than 700 volunteers worked both on and off stage in a sleek production that rivals the best Broadway offers. After “Seasons of Love” comes the “Sandy Hook School Song” as rendered by third and fourth grade classes, then composer Stephen Schwartz and singer Julia Murney perform music from Schwartz’s “Godspell” and “Wicked.” Philip Boykin sings “Ol’ Man River,” Boles sings his original song, “Still,” and Michael Cerveris melts the audience with Stephen Sondheim’s hymn to art, “Sunday in the Park,” joined by the Newtown High School Chamber Choir.
There are songs from “West Side Story,” “Chicago,” “Sister Act,” “Wonderland” and “Snoopy” with Sesame Street characters. Tony winners Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell raise the roof with her “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” and his “The Impossible Dream.”
And then comes Nikki Blonsky, star of “Hairspray,” singing “Good Morning Baltimore” with five girls who lost two of their classmates that awful day. Accompanied by the show’s composer, Marc Shaiman at the piano, Blonsky and company make you laugh and cry at the aborted optimism in the words “good morning.”
Yet, “morning” is appropriate. Last summer, building on the concert, Boles and Dean supervised a six-week summer theater camp in Newtown that produced the musical “Seussical.” Plans are afoot for another show this summer, possibly an original.
“I think especially for kids, the arts are the most wonderful way to express yourself in a safe environment without anybody judging you,” said Boles. “It’s hard to know what kinds of emotional and psychological problems are lying dormant in these kids. We want to empower them so they don’t feel they’re unable to do things they’ve dreamed doing. We bring in professionals so the kids learn they can do anything and be successful. In addition to meeting and working with other kids, they have a support system with a group of people they can always go to and talk to, who understand what they’re going through, what they’ve been through.”
Down the line is a performing arts center under the auspices of Newtown’s 1214 Foundation, planned as a living memorial to those who were lost. According to the foundation’s Web site, “we will create a remembrance that expresses our respect, our passion, our resilience and our focus on a hope for the future.”
The aim is echoed in an anecdote Dean relates: “I had one mom tell me she had a second grader and a fourth grader at Sandy Hook. She took them to all kinds of therapy. Nothing worked. Then they started to do ‘Seussical’ and began acting like themselves again. When you hear stuff like that you realize it’s all worth it. I know theater is entertaining and can move people. But to actually help heal them and find hope again, that’s the part you don’t really know until you see it.”
For further information, visit 1214Foundation.org
--David A. Rosenberg
March 23, 2014