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Teaching Musical Theater in America

Filichia recalls his days as a schoolteacher, when he used musical theater as an educational tool.

John Woodin
Got a phone call out of the blue from John Woodin, who was a sophomore in my study hall when I was a teacher at Arlington High School in Arlington, Massachusetts, lo those 26 years ago. Now he's an actor appearing Off-Off-Broadway in a production of Fool for Love. So I went to see him and was delighted to find that he was absolutely terrific. He played Martin, the poor soul who has a date with May but comes in just as she's fighting viciously with her lover, who may or may not be her brother. John didn't have a phony moment and was completely believable as the flummoxed fellow.

Afterwards, we went out and he told me he'd always wanted to act. That surprised me, for I was an advisor to the high school drama club and never recalled his auditioning. "Well," he sheepishly said, "you know Arlington. Big sports town. I was afraid what the kids might have said about me if I tried out." I chided him: "Ah, John. What you missed!" Then I bragged about Susan Hilferty, last year's Tony nominee for costumes, and Jan Leslie Harding, an Obie winner of a few years back, both of whom were in our drama club. Plenty of others, too, have made careers locally and nationally as actors. God bless drama director Frank Roberts for all he did for those kids.

While sitting with John, I recalled my days as an English teacher in the era when high schools thought it trendy to offer students "electives" instead of just a grammar-based curriculum. Fine with me. I suggested "Musical Theatre in America" and my department head, God love her, went for it. My students and I read musicals and listened to cast albums all day long. When time came for the kids to write their term papers, I distributed to each the name of a long-running hit and said that would be his or her topic. Barry Cote was assigned No Strings and weeks later, when I read his paper, I corrected his misspelling that Free Voelpel, rather than Fred Voelpel, did the costumes. The next day, Barry brought in the show's Capitol original cast album that indeed had a misprinted Free Voelpel on the front cover. I'd never noticed that on mine. Mrs. Anna was right: By your pupils you'll be taught.

But even outside of this class, when I was teaching plain ol' English, I somehow managed to infuse musical theater into the curriculum. When I taught creative writing, I told the kids to be very specific in creating a character and that a good way to do this was to ask themselves questions in order to really visualize the character. "For example," I said, "is he six-foot-seven, or three-foot-two? Has he eyes of brown or baby-blue? Big and mighty or underfed? Trim black mustache or beard of red? Can he dance like Fred Astaire? Is he dark or is he fair? Pompadour or not a hair? Well, I don't care," I told them, "but you do have to be specific." (And thank you, Betty and Adolph, for helping out.)

When I taught a journalism class, I stressed to the kids the important difference between fact and opinion by using a song from Mata Hari. "Throw a rock in the sea and that rock, it'll sink; is this fact? This is fact. Lead a Frenchman to wine and the Frenchman will drink; is this fact?" Though lyricist Martin Charnin insisted "This is fact" in the show, the kids would all wisely say, "No, that's an opinion." And, of course, I had to say that they were right.

There was that day in 1970 when the kids filed in and the boys were talking animatedly. Ronald Depari asked, "Hey, Mr. Filichia, did you see the hockey game last night?" I shook my head no and announced calmly that I'd been at a musical without bothering to tell him that it was Who to Love -- which is what Cry for Us All was called in Boston, in honor of the song "Who to Love If Not a Stranger?" Ronald went on, fully intent on telling me about the Boston Bruin who had been unfairly penalized for pushing a New York Ranger who had actually pushed him first, but the referee didn't notice that. "Do you think that's fair?" Ronald demanded of me. To which I said, "Who to shove if not a Ranger?"

I would never give homework over a weekend, but I did give out an extra credit question every Friday. The first kid to answer would get a solid point added to his final average. My favorite was, "What play opened to such terrible reviews that it reduced all tickets to a dollar on weeknights and two bucks on weekends?" The answer -- as I certainly don't have to tell any of you -- was And Things That Go Bump in the Night, Terrence McNally's first play, which opened and closed in April 1965. First thing Monday morning, there was Sandy Jackson with the answer. The kid had borrowed the 10 most recent volumes of the Burns Mantle Yearbook from the local library and spent the weekend searching through them, from the most recent year backwards. As she told me, "I just had a feeling that it'd be something that happened not too long ago, around the time you started paying attention to shows." (You won't be surprised to hear that the industrious Sandy already had an A average, but the extra point helped to ensure it.)

For better or worse, Broadway productions showed up in my tests in other ways. When it came time for pop quizzes of six questions or so, I would offer two columns where a student would have to match the numbered item on the left with the lettered item on the right. But I would have the six letters on the left-hand column spell out a Broadway musical -- like Bajour -- so I could tell at glance at the vertical list if the kid had gotten them right or wrong. I mean, just one look at "Brjour" and I could see that the second answer was incorrect. I remember when I once asked seven questions and had the answer spell out Kwamina; I had to add to the top of the test "Note: You can use each answer more than once."

This easy-to-read answer system reached its peak when I wrote a final exam for the kids with a-b-c-d multiple choice answers. I set it to that song from the movie Two Weeks with Love: "Aba Daba Honeymoon." In other words, the first x answers were a, b, a, d, a, b, a, d, a, b, a, d, a, b, a, d, a, b, a, d, a, b, a, d, a, b, a. And I swear, Philip Hutchinson came up to me afterwards and said, "Listen, were the answers like that song that goes 'Aba-Daba-Daba?'" To this day, I'm astonished that he noticed.

Just as astonished as my students were on the first day of school when I'd greet them with a mimeographed list of the original cast albums for which I was desperately looking. "Check your attics," I told them. "You never know." (Honestly, that's how I got my copy of Ankles Aweigh, courtesy of Joel Hall.) Once I had distributed the list, though, it was straight to work. I asked them to write compositions on any subject they'd like. "Anything at all," I said. "I just want to see how you write." You can imagine my surprise when a kid in 1970 wrote a good 500 words on how much he hated Arlene Francis on "What's My Line?" You can imagine my further surprise when another kid in 1973 wrote how much he hated Arlene Francis on "What's My Line?" And imagine my utter shock when yet another kid in 1975 wrote how much she hated Arlene Francis on "What's My Line?" The question is: Did three kids feel that passionately about the lady, or was this a composition that was handed down from one student to the next?


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