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Middle School Musical
Shrekkin’ too, tweenage boogaloo
As an English teacher, I wondered aloud with kids: is it Shrek the Musical, Jr or Shrek, Jr, the Musical? I thought of the old Onion headline about the erstwhile NYTimes’ word nerd, “William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior.” But when the director introduced it as the former, it seemed obvious. This wasn’t a musical about Shrek’s progeny, it was the kids’ version of the musical version of the movie. Kids love it, and maybe if it had been Chris Farley as intended I would, too. Bad movie, good show!
This year’s middle school musical was fantastic, especially to these biased eyes. As a sixth grade teacher, I watch kids grow from 11 to 13, a monumental three years. I also know almost everyone in school, having taught 90% of them. There were 20-25 actors and only one I hadn’t taught (though we’ve chatted). So I was grinning like an idiot knowing how out of his comfort zone that dancing sunflower was. I was stunned seeing eighth graders doing things they couldn’t do in sixth grade. I’ve seen these kids read and write and even play instruments, but suddenly I was seeing them dance and emote and sing. Sometimes even on key! I exclaimed at the brilliant casting, the hilarious acting choices, the Pinocchio whose nose actually grew when he told a lie. Our Shrek didn’t attempt the incongruous Scottish accent, like Clooney in a Boston movie, and it all hummed.
Once upon a time, our (genius) music teacher had the kids co-write original musicals, and I even lent a hand a few times. But he’s now expatriated to Korea, soon Japan, and we were left juniorizing Willy Wonka, Jr. Rumor has it we’ll return to original musicals soon, but this year’s tale of the green ogre made for compelling theater. There were 91 costumes, hours of practice, SRO opening night, probably a full house Friday. The kids nailed it, and I had a blast seeing them in a new context. You sing like THAT?! Great job, great show.
The Urban Blah
Back in 2009-11 I collaborated with the brilliant Vee to make a webcomic that failed to become syndicated across the globe. I am pro-recycling.
The wife continues to greet the dogs before greeting me, which I suppose is the way of dog people. But I expect my hug and kiss soon thereafter! Also, Vee has a substack newsletter, you should subscribe!
Jam of the Week
My best friend from high school/former roommate/sporadic creative partner for 30+ years is in town to act in an independent film, and he’s crashing with us. Jay’s like a brother, but he and his wife have such extensive friends and family around Boston that their time can be hard to come by. Not this weekend! The wife was away, so Jay and I had the space to spend night gabbing for hours, sometimes out, sometimes in. That happened a lot senior year of high school, not so much since. Great summer weekend, even if it was somehow 48 degrees. Wasn’t it 90 three days ago?
More than once, we took turns showing off songs to each other, ransacking our collections and memories to surprise the other. Jay’s all LA Apple Music, I’m more Boston Spotify, and our musical Venn intersection is wide — and not just because he’s been in 75% of the bands I’ve played in. I noticed my choices all sounded the same: Driving beat, one- or two-notes, a repetitive groove, usually guitar and drums. It’s why I love the Feelies and the Hookworms, plus past Jams like Minami Deutsch and Kratzen and even DIIV, and probably more. One recent pick that fits right in is the 2023 release from Black Delta Movement who do it all with a psychedelic bent (another common thread). Ghost Woman’s 2022 self-titled album is like a brother from another mother, following my usual format of the first album being the best one. New one’s also good, but I prefer the one from last year.
My Back Pages
I considered sharing my work on a past school play, but I thought of it late Sunday so look for it next week. Instead, we’ll travel far back to junior year of high school when kids were invited to write their own plays. I channeled what I knew of school theater, plus a strong dash of MAD Magazine and Monty Python, and Anytown High premiered spring 1992, written and directed by me.
NARRATOR: This play is intended to be a comedy. However, you may not find it terribly hilarious. You may even consider it insulting. This is not our goal. Our goal is to poke fun at the high schools portrayed in movies and on TV. All stereotypes used are not meant to be offensive. Please keep this in mind throughout the entire evening. If you are insulted in any way, please send $15 dollars cash to the Walpole Players, and we'll slowly murder the writer of this play.
With this Our Town-esque introduction, I allowed myself to unleash a torrent of sketch-quality stereotypes on unsuspecting audiences. Every other play was a drama, so my cast channeling SNL with broad interpretations got a great reaction.
NARRATOR: Aah yes. There's the first signs of life, if you dare call them that.
PHILIP: Well you know, last night I was sitting on my bed reading Hundechhersluffen’s latest postulates on non-anthropomorhic deities in the ancient Zwigiboo culture.
BRADFORD: Oh yes. I have all of his works.
PHILIP: Anyway, I was pondering over his every syllable when all of a sudden it hit me! The perfect formula for finding the surface area of Ms. Vapid's glutius maximus!
Nerds! Jocks! Molly Ringwald in the Breakfast Club! “Weirdos,” which I guess was Ally Sheedy. Our nerds fed off audience energy and went to heights unseen in rehearsal. Kids sensed this was a show to improvise in, and they weren’t wrong.
SPIKE : Hallo Mongo.
MONGO: Hallo Spike.
SPIKE: Me stupid.
MONGO: Me too. Wanna go kill some nerds?
SPIKE: Okay! (to nerds) Hey, losers! You wanna die?
NERDS: NO! (start crying in fear)
MONGO: Then given us your pants.
Speaking of improv, the pantsing went in a whole new (semi-violent) direction live, and it was a huge hit. Another character would react to anyone saying hello by screaming and running offstage. She said that was exactly the level of acting she was ready for. I of course took a small part.
JOSE : (with thick foreign accent) Hello? Is anyone here? I am needing help? Where is class 245? Help? Where am I? Help?
(TIM appears and pulls JOSE offstage)
NARRATOR: That was the permanently confused foreign exchange student from Anycountry. He will never straighten out.
To say this was ripped off from Monty Python’s “I will not buy this record, it is scratched” sketch isn’t quite right. I’d say it was more of a cover version.
NARRATOR: What do you do after school?
JOSE: (looking through phrasebook) I will not buy this record, it is scratched.
Well, a faithful cover version. My “foreign accent” was from no discernible country, but I’m sure it was more socially acceptable 30 years ago than today. There’s an interminable sequence in which every character introduces themselves and talks about what they do after-school. It make me wonder: was I skewering stereotypes or luxuriating in them? The plot of the play reveals itself: the sitcom trope of balancing multiple dates to the dance.
NARRATOR : The story so far: Allison Rivera is now going to the prom with 4 people: a nerd, a dumb jock, an annoying person, and the man of her dreams. Buffy is going with the dumb jock of her dreams, a couple whose total IQ may range into double-digits if lucky. Sandra and Gloria are going together because of the limited number of actors. The Weirdos have adopted a nerd and plan to spike the punch with a strange fruit juice concoction. And Molly is going with Jose.
I wasn’t offering much social commentary, rather giving kids the chance to lean into characters and pleading satire. I wasn’t turning paradigms on their heads, more turning up the heat, winking and nodding, and going for MAD-level satire. The prom itself found Allison trying to manage all her dates, but I was such a clunky director that it was all entrances and exits and had no rhythm. We coasted off the success of the opening scenes. Then we build to the grand punchline.
ALLISON : Wait, let me explain. You see I like you all as friends, but the one I really like is Tim. I’m sorry. So let me enjoy the rest of the evening with him, OK? Guys? Guys?
(The guys seem to have found an amazing thing in each other and now have decided to merrily skip offstage together holding hands)
The joke is they’re gay! Ha ha! Very Monty Python. It says a lot about 1992 that I knew gay people but didn’t know they were gay, and that this was okay as a punchline to a play. 1992 was not a time to be casually out, so it felt edgy! The dates left her for each other! I plead being 16 and it being 1992 and… yeah. In the end, the girl who ran away screaming found her way with the foreign exchange student, and he stayed with Python.
MOLLY: I had a really good time tonight, Jose.
MOLLY: Maybe we could go out some time?
JOSE: (pulls out phrasebook) I like traffic lights?
MOLLY: Me too. Let's go.
(MOLLY drags him offstage)
JOSE : Hello?
And that’s right, the only one who got the girl was me. I plead being 16.