It’s two days before opening night, and the Albemarle High School Players are taking a rare breather. Larry Johnson, a retired math teacher who’s been building sets at AHS since the current cast of Hello, Dolly! was in elementary school, is seated in a chair near the edge of the stage. Clad in an orange UVA t-shirt and khaki trousers, Johnson looks out at a rapt audience of 50 teenagers and begins the “magic speech,” which he delivers every year at this time.
“This is no ordinary place, no ordinary wood that you walk on,” he tells them. “It’s a place that contains magic. If I’d just seen it, I might not believe it, but I’ve experienced it…And I now understand that when a role takes you over, when you become who you portray, all of a sudden a play is not a play, which is the magic of this stage.”
You could see it as just another corny pep talk, but if you’re there, listening to Johnson and watching the students, your skin tingles.
I hadn’t been to a high school musical since Jimmy Carter was president, but in the spring of 2011 I found myself in the Albemarle High School auditorium for a Sunday matinee of Phantom of the Opera.
“Wow,” I thought when the curtain calls concluded. “That was amazing.”
Turns out I wasn’t the only one impressed by a bunch of adolescent thespians and their director. That summer, readers of this newspaper voted Phantom their favorite local play in Best of C-VILLE. The following year, the Albemarle Players earned another Best of C-VILLE award, this time for Fiddler on the Roof. When I heard the troupe was putting up Hello, Dolly!—one of my all-time favorite musicals—I told my editor I wanted to write about it—from auditions to opening night.
So I was back in the AHS auditorium in January, this time surrounded by several dozen students who’d stayed after school for an audition workshop. I was about to introduce myself to one of them when conversation abruptly ceased, and all eyes turned to a side door in the front of the auditorium. Fay Cunningham, the longtime head of the drama department, had arrived. I met Cunningham for the first time a couple weeks earlier on a dreary morning when I cut out of work to watch her Drama IV students perform their final exam, a scene from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, which Hello, Dolly! is based on. Then, now, and during the months to come, I often heard Cunningham before I saw her, thanks to her laugh—an extended squeal of delight, followed by a bark-like “ha!”
Just over 5′ tall with rectangular glasses, and a tangle of strawberry-blonde hair, Cunningham is savvy in the way of someone who’s spent decades working with—and not taking crap from—young people. She’s fond of long skirts and scarves, and favors bright colors—pinks and greens in particular. After introducing herself to me that first morning, Cunningham apologized because she’d mixed up her dates. The exam was yesterday, she said, but “come back next Monday afternoon when my Drama II students are performing.” It wasn’t a request.
“Fay is fierce,” one parent told me when I mentioned last winter that I was writing this story. I wasn’t sure what he meant by “fierce,” but after four months watching Cunningham tirelessly and generously interact with teenage singers, dancers, and actors, as well as other teachers and parents, I now know he meant that it takes a certain tenacity to turn a high school production into something spectacular. Or, as Cunningham put it: “We don’t do high school theater here. We aim for professional theater.”
Before telling the students gathered for the workshop what they’d be in for when Hello, Dolly! auditions began the following week, Cunningham explained that the show opened January 16, 1964 at the St. James Theater in New York with Carol Channing in the role of Dolly. It earned 10 Tony Awards, including best musical.
While Cunningham talked, I studied the kids: Which one of you is Dolly, I wondered as I looked over the girls, who outnumbered the boys by about two to one. What about Irene Malloy? Who is a Horace Vandergelder, played by Walter Matthau in the 1969 film version, which starred Barbra Streisand as Dolly? Mostly, though, I was curious to see if they were talented enough to turn back the clock to 1890s Yonkers, New York, and make me believe them when they shouted lines like “Holy cabooses!” or sang “It only, takes a moment, to be loved a whole life long…”
“It all starts next week, ladies and gentlemen,” Cunningham said. “The role you get depends on how you act, sing, and dance, and how you work as a group.” By the end of audition week, “I’ll know who the whiners are and who will hang in there. If you want it—and you’re thirsty for it and hungry for it—you’ll be here, performing for 700 or 800 people. But you gotta work for it.”
And then Cunningham turned the floor over to Jennifer Morris, the AHS Players’ vocal director for 21 years. Sometimes the good cop to Cunningham’s bad cop, JMo, as her students affectionately call her, told the kids that “before you utter a word of the script we’ll get a chance to know your singing voices—we will hear what kind of voice you have, how loud, how confidently you sing, what your range is. Wanting a role in a musical, and having the capability to sing that role don’t always go together.”
Added Cunningham: “You have to understand that what you might want, or how you perceive yourself, isn’t always the best thing for that part. The chemistry of the actors or the blend of the voices may not be right. I don’t pay attention if someone’s fat or thin or young or old. A few years ago, I cast a black-haired, Puerto Rican girl as Annie. I didn’t dye her hair red or put a wig on her. We played her for who she was. There is room for everyone in this show.”