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Students Live!

Students are educated in theater thanks to the cast of Chicago and an organization called Students Live. logo

The jury found Roxie Hart guilty. Not in the film of Chicago, and not in the long-running revival at the Shubert. But last month, hundreds of kids from the metropolitan area listened to the testimony of the State of Illinois v. Roxie Hart, and overwhelmingly found the lady guilty of killing her lover.

It happened at a special morning show offered by Students Live, a marvelous organization founded by a dynamo named Amy Weinstein. "We get Broadway tickets for kids, but that's only a small part of what we do," she said. "My mission is to create programs, workshops, and materials that educate kids about the theater. I only take shows that have an educational context, as Chicago does because it shows how the press manipulates the public, and how the legal justice system can be corrupt. Is Roxie justified in killing Fred? Should she be acquitted because we feel sorry for her? No, we teach, don't let your emotions influence you. The law has nothing to do with what you feel."

To get her audience, Weinstein cold-calls superintendents, teachers, and arts coordinators. She also approaches producers who sacrifice tickets at a lower cost, which are often paid for by the administrations of public schools, or parents or teachers in the case of private schools. The producing heroes so far have included: Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, and Allan S. Gordon of Rent (the former two, with Bazmark, of La Boheme as well), Ben Mordecai of Flower Drum Song, Roy Gabay of Def Poetry Jam and Metamorphoses, and, for Chicago, the Weisslers.

Once the shows are set, Weinstein hires teachers to write study guides, which she provides to students three months before they come to the performance. For Chicago, the kids were then asked to write their own compositions on what they'd say if they were character witnesses at Roxie's trial, and even learn the music and lyrics to "All That Jazz." "Theatergoing is important for kids," Weinstein said, "because the people I know who didn't attend theater when they were younger have a lack of appreciation, sophistication, and awareness of the big picture. They don't read as much, and they love Howard Stern."

Finally, the big day arrived. A full house of kids were at the Shubert at 10am where they saw five performers bound onto the stage and dance to contemporary music that had nothing to do with Chicago. "Hello, Broadway!" one performer yelled. "We got New Jersey here?" got a bigger response than similar questions to Long Islanders and Brooklynites, though those from the Bronx gave the biggest cheers of all. There were even some Philadelphians here, too, for this workshop was also a workout, as calisthenics and clapping abounded, to both energize the kids and tire them so they'd sit still.

An actor named Tony Freeman entered. His credits were announced, but only when his performing on Law & Order was mentioned did the kids "Ooohhh" with awe. Freeman, Students Live's teaching artist, set the scene of Chicago in the '20s. When he mentioned Prohibition, some kids booed, in stark contrast to the cheers they gave when he mentioned Al Capone. Yes, Students Live has work to do.

A scene from the new film version of Chicago
(Photo: © David James)
Three guests came out to give the kids some positive reinforcement. Rikki Klieman, a Northwestern theater major who became a lawyer, said "Now I'm a criminal defense lawyer and an entertainer at once. So you can go out and get what you want one way or another." WABC-TV anchorman Steve Bartelstein admitted to having far less education, though he did catch a baseball scholarship, but abandoned it to pursue a career in media. He told of early struggles -- "Macaroni and cheese become your good friends" - before adding, "but then it pays off. Don't let anyone say you can't do what you want." Mickey Sherman, Michael Skakel's lawyer in that recent murder trial, said that he came from Greenwich, Connecticut -- "but the poor part," he amended, before conceding that he amassed just a C+ average in school. But he too told the kids the sky was the limit, so all three speakers did their jobs in encouraging these youths.

Next came some discussion on whether or not Winona Ryder's fame affected her recent trial. Sherman probably surprised many by flatly stating that Ryder shouldn't have been put on trial, but should have immediately been given probation -- "but," he admitted, "she went on trial because we the public love to see the rich and famous fall on their behinds." Klieman added, "We're supposed to treat all people the same, but you know that's not true," before delivering the surprising opinion, "You get treated worse if you're famous. Most cases case of shoplifting involving poor people meant easier treatment." Bartelstein 'fessed up why the media carries tawdry, sensationalist fare: "We only cover what people want to see," he said, and again attempted to raise the audience's self-esteem by saying, "You kids are four times smarter than we ever were. You handle the gay/straight issues better. So drive us to be better." No, they don't pull punches at Students Live. Klieman added that when she attended both the O.J. and Skakel trials, she was astonished to hear the way the reporters described what had happened. "Were they in the same courtroom I was in?" she asked aloud. "They weren't reporting, they were just writing what they wanted. And you'll see that today in Chicago."

Ah, yes, Chicago! The kids then saw a condensed version of the show that Weinstein herself penned -- and were told on their way out of the theater before lunch, each would cast a vote on Roxie Hart's guilt or innocence. Once this one-act play started, the kids were treated as a jury. "All rise," they were instructed for the entrance of the judge (Jim Cairl), who told them, "You must not consider news or rumor, and you must have no sympathy because Roxie Hart is a pretty woman." This was followed by an extraordinarily well-written, beautifully directed and choreographed version of the trial in Chicago, with an occasional reference to the show (Prosecutor: "I know you'll see through all the razzle-dazzle.") and some nyuk-nyuk-nyuk Three Stooges moments to appease the groundlings.

Billy Flynn (Justin Patterson) then pointed out that Roxie (Krie Alden) "had a gun which every (pause) American (pause) citizen has a right to do" -- planting the seed in the kids' heads that this right might very well be wrong. He then paraphrased "We Both Reached for the Gun" without music. Weinstein's script included punny gags ("That's hearsay!" "That's her-say!") and benign anachronisms (Roxie said her phone number was 976-SEXX, which caused one audience member to wolf-whistle so enthusiastically that his teacher had to get up and silence him).

Film actor Billy Zane plays lawyer Billy Flynn
in the Broadway production of Chicago
Then selected students came on stage and testified as character witnesses, reading the compositions they'd written weeks earlier. "They should throw away the key," said one kid; "Her fanny is grass," opined another. A third said, "Why don't we give Roxie an Oscar for her performance in the courtroom?" (I long for the day when the kids know enough to say Tony for a live performance.) Once the trial ended, Chicago cast members Roxane Carrasco and Mark Anthony Taylor came on to head a musical segment. "Any dancers in the room?" Carrasco asked, and many kids answered yes. She then taught them the choreography of "All That Jazz" to the melody and lyrics they'd already learned. Many followed her dance steps, but many more did not, talking among themselves. Carrasco combatted it with a matter-of-fact, "Don't make me talk over you." That didn't quite work, so Taylor said angrily, "If you don't want to do it, we won't waste our time on you. We're doing this for you." This sobered the kids into submission, and that was the only rebuke he had to give -- though when the kids were asked to sing the song, one kid didn't croon, "And all that jazz," but instead, "She's got no ass," perhaps priming himself as the next Gerard Alessandrini. Yet most eyes were riveted to the stage, as kids aped every dance move, and laughed because they surprised themselves at how well they did. Hey, as those who send out direct mail will attest, you have to be happy with a 1% return, and Students Live got a far greater response than that.

Then some Chicago leads came out to answer questions. The kids didn't know who Caroline O'Connor, the current Velma, is, but when she was identified as a Moulin Rouge performer, they showed interest. They gave more response to Rob Bartlett, the current Amos, because they know him from Imus in the Morning. But, oh, did they go wild when out came Billy Zane from their beloved Titanic. ("Bill-EE! Bill-EE!") One kid asked, "How do you prepare?" and while Bartlett joked, "A quadruple triple latte," he did add that, as Amos, he must "work to have people not notice me." Zane, though, stressed how an actor must do whatever the director wants, which must have been music to the teachers' ears.

Taylor, a swing with the show, told the kids about his job, and so impressed them that they warmly applauded him for his responsibilities. But my favorite moment came after Carrasco mentioned that Chicago's original production starred Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach. As the kids were filing out and dropping off their ballots, I heard one boy say to his friend, "Did she say Jerry Orbach?!" When he got a squint of confusion from his buddy, he shook his head a little as if to clear it, coming to the conclusion that the actor he sees nightly on Law & Order just couldn't possibly be the same guy.

By the way, I should point out that the "Live" part of the name of Students Live is pronounced with a long "i," but it could just as easily be said with a short "i." Because here's a program that makes students live and breathe in a way they never did before.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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