“Well, well, well, well, well, well, will wonders never cease?”
Santino Fontana was singing “She Loves Me,” the title song of a musical that changed my life.
For the first time in its 68-year history, the Caramoor Summer Music Festival, located some 45 miles north of New York City’s theater district, decided to present a complete Broadway musical and cast top-notch Broadway performers. The festival chose “She Loves Me,” which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. “She Loves Me” is not as well-known as “Fiddler on the Roof,” the very next musical created by the songwriting team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. But to aficionados, it is the better musical, undeserved of its relative obscurity.
I had not seen “She Loves Me” since I was cast as the lead – the role played most recently by Santino Fontana and earlier by Boyd Gaines and Daniel Massey and in variations of the same story by James Stewart and Tom Hanks. But my leading man days occurred when I was a student at I.S. 70, the O.Henry School, a public junior high school (as middle schools were called then) in Manhattan. As we took the Caramoor Caravan (a bus that brings New Yorkers back and forth to the festival in Katonah, New York every summer weekend), my first memory of the I.S. 70 production was of Melinda Marson (I guess she was the stage manager) whispering something from the wings while I was on stage. I thought she was talking to me (she was actually trying to talk to somebody on the other side of the stage), so I whispered back “What do you want, stupid?”—which, to my great surprise, got a laugh from the audience; I hadn’t realized they would hear me. I also remembered that the director of the show, Mr. Feldman, the music teacher, hired 26 professional musicians for the orchestra instead of using the school band, and that the trombone player drowned out one of my spoken lines at each and every performance.
The Caravan delivered us four hours early, so that we could enjoy an afternoon in Caramoor’s 90 acres of woodlands and gardens, and watch the well-dressed crowd, there to attend the gala; it was opening night for the festival.
Finally, inside the mammoth tent of the Venetian Theater, which seats 1,700, “She Loves Me” began, with an overture by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, playful but somehow also majestic, with accordion and violin solos and a luscious sound.
Like Encores! at New York City Center, the orchestra was on the stage, in full view of the audience, with the actors performing in a relatively small space in front.
But that did not stop the actors from giving some startling performances, and as the story unfolded I was jolted several times.
I had remembered the plot, which is widely familiar because of three movies, including “The Shop Around The Corner” (1940) with Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, and “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan – all based on a 1930’s Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo, entitled “Parfumerie.” Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash are secret lovers, but even they aren’t in on the secret. They are bickering co-workers at a parfumerie, but by coincidence they also have been writing love letters to one another anonymously, one of them having answered the classified newspaper ad of the other.
That Fantino could nail the affable Georg was hardly a surprise to those who have seen him on Broadway, where he took off the weekend from his role as the Prince in “Cinderella” in order to perform in “She Loves Me.” Nor would anybody expect less than what they got from the always-reliable John Cullum, 83-year-old veteran of 28 Broadway productions, as the boss Mr. Maraczek, nor the always-smooth Ryan Silverman (most recently in the CSC’s revival of Sondheim’s “Passion”) as the slick Lothario of the shop, Steven Kodaly.
Two other performances, though, were revelations. Montego Glover, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role as the diva with the powerhouse pipes in “Memphis,” here was playing Ilona, a shopgirl with bad luck, and bad judgment, in men (such as Steven Kodaly.) It is a comic role, laced with sentiment, and it is a testament to Glover’s smarts as a theater artist that she did not try to turn it into a showcase for her amazing voice. She talk-sang it, which is exactly the right approach, showing herself adept at comedy; casting directors will surely take note.
Alexandra Silber played Amalia. She is less known than many of her colleagues at Caramoor, her sole turn on Broadway one of the students auditioning for Maria Callas in the Tyne Daly 2011 revival of “Master Class.” But theatergoers certainly should get to know her better. Silber has a glorious voice, but she also was pitch-perfect in her acting, navigating the difficult character of Amalia, who must be nearly nasty to the amiable Georg but at the same time both vulnerable and adorable.
Most of the jolts, though, were personal. I was startled that I recalled not just almost all of Georg’s lyrics and lines, but even how I had delivered them, and how much better Fontana was — underemphasizing where I overemphasized — a continuous lesson in professional acting.
I also hadn’t realized how much I had incorporated the songs from “She Loves Me” into my life. On a nice day, I find myself humming the song “Good Morning, Good Day”
“ It’s too nice a day to be indoors counting out change.
What a waste of holiday weather!
Let’s all run away.”
And every scene brought a new flashback — I remembered which classmate played which role. Memories of people I hadn’t thought about for decades came flooding back.
But I was maddened to realize that I couldn’t remember everybody. Who played Ilona (Montego Glover’s part)? Who played her seducer, the smooth-talking Kodaly (Ryan Silverman’s role)?
I asked around — from the few people with whom I’ve kept in touch, and on Facebook. My classmate and friend Lisa gave me contact information for Mr. Feldman, and I e-mailed him, hearing back right away. He turned out to have gone to both performances of “She Loves Me” at Caramoor: “I thought the show was wonderful and very faithful to the original ’63 version, which I saw 26 times.”
I learned he lives in my neighborhood, and he invited me to visit. I was in for some surprises.
“Call me Michael,” he said when he met me at the door, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so.
Mr. Feldman almost immediately shared what struck me as a profound coincidence — although maybe, on second thought, not so coincidental. Mr. Feldman founded the Orchestra at St. Luke’s, the resident orchestra at Caramoor, and was its first conductor. Although he is no longer involved with the orchestra, he said that his long-held and widely-known passion for “She Loves Me” might well have influenced producer Paul Rosenblum’s decision to make it the first Broadway musical at Caramoor. It’s ideal for Caramoor, Mr. Feldman said. “The music is wonderful, the size of the orchestra is modest (An opera takes 75)”
“I have been a student and on the faculty of the best schools in the world, and I remember IS70 as one of the greatest experiences of all thanks to teachers like M. Feldman.”
Mr. Feldman first discovered the musical on Broadway because he got free tickets to it as a member of the West Point Band, where he played the clarinet for three years.
“I brought my parents to it, I brought other guys from the band. I went sometimes twice a week.”
“The music is wonderful. It’s almost like an operetta there are so many songs. It was one of the first shows on two LPs – you couldn’t get it all on one. So much of the story is told by singing. It’s full of classical music elements – fugues, like Bach.”
He was disappointed that the original Broadway production of the musical, directed by Harold Prince and starring the peerless Barbara Cook as Amalia, and an altogether first-rate cast — Jack Cassidy as Kodaly, Daniel Massey as Georg, Barbara Baxley as Ilona — lasted less than nine months. “I was despondent it didn’t last forever.”
So when, years later, he had wound up the music teacher at the newly-opened Intermediate School 70,
it was his natural first pick. “It was my all-time favorite show, and I could do whatever I wanted.”
Ms. Doren the art teacher did the scenery. Mr. Feldman hired professional musicians for the orchestra. I asked him why he didn’t just use the school band. He looked at me. “They were not experienced enough.” But of course he had no choice but to select the cast from among a bunch of 13-year-olds. “I didn’t have time to choose carefully; I had to typecast,” he told me, in what I suspect to be a polite gloss. He cast me for Georg because “you were that kind of person – nice sweet guy, pretty tall, nice features; you could sing a little.”
Tracey, the daughter of a well-known jazz singer who had unusual poise and timbre for a teenager, was cast as Amalia. Walter Rubin played Georg’s world-weary, comic sidekick Sipos, the only 13-year-old I ever knew who could grow a beard – and the only one of us who I remember as being determined to become a professional actor.
Mr. Feldman told me that the raffish Kodaly was played by Wesley, which I doubted at first – he didn’t seem disciplined enough to learn the part. But I retrieved from my mother a photograph she kept of the production, and there he was in the background.
If I hadn’t remember him on stage, I recalled Wesley vividly in the classroom – a natural performer, taller than anybody else in the school, a guy who when he wasn’t acting the class clown, seemed dangerous, even at 13.
Mr. Feldman also told me that Elissa had played Ilona, and I instantly pictured her — cute with a shy smile, she later cut off all her hair and wore a ring in her nose.
Ben, who I recalled as dashing in a very low-key way, played the boss, Mr. Maraczek.
Together, we had recalled the performers for six of the seven main characters in the musical. (Neither of us could come up with the kid who played Arpad, the young messenger who is promoted to clerk.) Tracey became a record company executive; the photograph on her Facebook page shows her standing between Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Walter, who renamed himself Wally, became a high-salaried manager for the City of New York. I became a journalist, now under-employed and focusing on the theater.
The other three, as much as we could piece together, died young. Elissa’s name is on a long morbid “In Remembrance” list on a closed Facebook page of people from my neighborhood. There was an article I retrieved after a Google search about a man with the same name as Wesley, born the same year – a short obituary: He had died at age 28. Ben has disappeared, which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s dead.
Mr. Feldman left I.S. 70 soon after the production of “She Loves Me” – though not until he staged the even more ambitious “Hair.”
“I was very frustrated. I wanted a career in music.” And so he got one, which took him to the major venues of New York, as well as China and New Zealand –and back eventually to teaching, in a series of public schools in the Bronx, before retiring.
I.S 70 itself is long since gone — the building remains, but it houses other schools. Mine was judged to be under-performing, a failed experiment, and wiped from the face of Manhattan. But its legacy remains. “At I.S. 70, people had arts every day,” Mr. Feldman recalled. “If you don’t have arts in school, you won’t have any audiences.”
The school still exists in memory; a Facebook page dedicated to I.S. 70 has 850 members.
I had mentioned to Mr. Feldman that I had used Facebook for my sleuthing. He said he doesn’t use it, but he asked that I say hello to his former students for him.
I did so, prompting an outpouring of comment and affection.
Lisette Foley: “He had an amazing impact on my life.”
Ann Kaplan: “He was a great teacher.”
Kitty Weisman: “I still have very fond memories of him and his terrific Airedale terrier, Unke “
Ted Panken: “I’ve retained large chunks of the “Messiah,” which is what the chorus class performed during my 8th grade year. I didn’t properly appreciate what I was getting at the time, but I certainly do now.”
Mary Yepez: “I have been a student and on the faculty of the best schools in the world, and I remember IS70 as one of the greatest experiences of all thanks to teachers like M. Feldman.”
Claudia Lorie: “I remember us giving him a hard time in chorus. We could be really frustrating to teach. I also remember him really being inspiring…. “
Wendy Shore Gonzales: “It is certainly my experience in Chorus that led me to become a choral teacher, too!”
I’m not sure if it’s ironic or not that the only person I know from my time at I.S. 70 who became an actress – and one with a stellar career both on stage and in the movies – wasn’t involved in the theater at all in junior high school; she wanted to be a visual artist then. But I do know that Michael Feldman is right. I am quite sure that every day, in a theater or concert hall in New York City or at least somewhere in the United States, there is a theatergoer sitting in the audience who went to I.S. 70.
*The two audio tracks are from the original Broadway production, starring Daniel Massey and Barbara Cook
Here’s a video of another beloved teacher in I.S. 70, who has since died, Mr. Sheik. Maybe we should hold a similar tribute for Mr. Feldman?