Robert Eagle
Robert Eagle
The nominees for the Best Musical Production of 2002 as voted by the Independent Reviewers of New England were: Ragtime at the North Shore Music Theatre; Beauty and the Beast and The Full Monty, both at Boston's legendary Colonial Theatre; and Singin' in the Rain by the Reagle Players in suburban Waltham, Massachusetts. And the winner was: Singin' in the Rain by the Reagle Players. (What?)

Celebrating their 35th anniversary this year, the Reagle Players may still operate out of an auditorium at Waltham High School but this is a little theater that could -- and can, and does. As the years have passed, it's gone from a glorified high school theater company to one that now sports an occasional Equity performer and attracts notice from critics and audiences alike. More often than not, the 1,082-seat house is filled for four summer musicals that play eight or nine performances each.

Reagle means Robert Eagle, a native of Waltham (pop. 59,226) who came to teach in the town's school system in 1956, stayed for decades, and is still on the premises helming a company with four full-time employees and 100 seasonal part-timers. His interest in musicals began the way it started for many of us: An aunt and a grandmother took him to a show. In his case, it was a national tour of Oklahoma! in the late '40s at the Boston Opera House. The theater has since been razed but Eagle's enthusiasm for musicals remains.

"Right after seeing Oklahoma!, I started doing shows in my cellar with neighborhood kids, using bed sheets for curtains," says the diminutive, soft-spoken 69-year-old. "I sold tickets, much to my mother's embarrassment -- not because I was charging money but because, as she said, 'You're bringing people into our dirty cellar?!'"

With the money he made on his first trip to New York at age 14, he was able to buy tickets for two shows. After the first, Where's Charley?, Eagle went to the stage door and got Ray Bolger's autograph. (It wouldn't be the last time he'd approach a performer.) Then he went to Radio City and was so impressed with the art-deco palace that he just had to see what the entire complex looked like. So, out of the blue, he wrote a letter to the powers-that-be and asked for a backstage tour. "Today, of course, you can just take one," he says, "but, back then, they didn't have such things."

Still, the publicist created one for young Eagle. After the kid had his tour and was given an elaborate press packet, he came home and built a balsa-wood model of the Music Hall. A woman who played piano at his church -- Eagle was her page-turner -- was so impressed with the result that she called the Boston Globe, which came out and did a story on the boy, which in turn prompted a freelancer from Popular Mechanics to write about the model, too. Thus did the teenaged Robert Eagle learn an important life lesson: Ask and ye may receive, not only what you want but also some publicity.

After he graduated from Boston College (he later received an M.A. in drama from Catholic University), Eagle returned to Waltham. After directing the inevitable production of Cheaper by the Dozen with high schoolers, he decided to stage some shows with teachers in the cast. "They were revues," he explains, "such as 20 Years of Tony Awards." His eyes flash: "They made a lot of money."

Eagle became synonymous with theater in Waltham and even helped to design the new auditorium when plans were laid in the late '60s. His first Reagle Players musical was The Music Man, staged mostly with high school students but also with a few college students from the town. The Meredith Willson masterpiece set the tone for the family entertainment that Eagle would provide. In the summer of 1970, he did Our Town, The Wizard of Oz, and Oklahoma! -- in rep. "That was insane, just insane," he says now, shaking his head. Then he admits, rather sheepishly: "In 1976, I did four shows in rep: Dames at Sea, No, No, Nanette, Fiddler on the Roof, and 1776."

I saw the last-named Reagle show, and -- because I had seen the original Broadway production and the two touring productions that visited Boston in 1972 and 1973 -- I was aware long before John Adams sat down that Eagle had blocked every actor within a quarter-inch of the spot on which his counterpart had stood on the stages of the 46th Street and Colonial Theaters. Many may carp at his lack of originality, but for those who want to see the show they once saw on Broadway -- or the one they missed there -- the Reagle Players represent a purist's paradise. Eagle's unapologetic photocopying of original productions is the result of his attending a show many times -- and bringing his notebook with him. He gives a wry smile when he thinks of it: "Sometimes, I worry that I didn't really enjoy shows as much as other people did because I was taking all those notes."

The shows often look the same for another reason: Eagle often writes (you know him!) the producers who own the original sets, costumes, and props, and purchases them. He did that with the Canadian production of Crazy for You and the Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! And in 1990, when he heard that the just-closed Broadway production of A Chorus Line was auctioning its wares on a Tuesday, he came to town on a Monday and talked his way into getting the sets and costumes for $3,000.

Robert Fitch
Robert Fitch
Then there was that day in the late '70s when he took his students to New York to see Annie. After the show, Bob Fitch -- the original Rooster -- was on the sidewalk doing magic tricks for people who'd just seen the show, and Eagle asked if the actor would be willing to talk to the kids. Fitch did so and then Eagle upped his request by asking the actor if he'd come to Waltham to talk to the other students. "I'll remember him till my dying day," says Eagle, still appreciative, "because he came up a day early and there, in my living room, he taught 'Easy Street' to both a stern housemaster and a first-grade teacher. When they did it the next day in front of the student body, it tore down the house."

But even that wasn't enough asking for Eagle: Some years later, when he was planning to do Annie at his theater, he asked Fitch if he would come and recreate his Rooster as a guest artist. Fitch said yes, and that opened the door for Eagle to request other artists to come 10 miles southwest of Boston to appear in subsequent shows. Subsequently, Lara Teeter recreated his Junior Dolan in On Your Toes and Laurie Gamache did Cassie in a production of A Chorus Line that she also choreographed and directed for Eagle. They joined high schoolers, college students, and anyone else who caught the Eagle eye.

2 So here he is, ready to start a season consisting of Grease (staged by one of Boston's best directors, Frank Roberts), West Side Story, Gypsy, and the show that started it all for Eagle lo those 35 summers ago: The Music Man. Now, the top ticket price is $35. "That's a $7 increase from last year," he says mournfully, knowing that his desire to put on a better show means spending more money. "But it's funny; season subscriptions are up." People from Waltham, other Massachusetts towns, and even a few from Rhode Island and New Hampshire are willing to pay for quality.

As he sits in the auditorium where he's spent an astonishing portion of his life, Eagle remembers the days when car washes and bake sales kept his little organization afloat. I ask him to recall a highlight of his Reagle experience. He stops and thinks, then finally says, "Getting permission to stage a production of Fiddler while the original was still running on Broadway and going up to New York with the actors so they could learn the bottle dance." By that point, Eagle knew that all he had to do was ask.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]