It’s May Day, the blooms along Brattle Street are breathtaking, we had a Royal Wedding this week, replete with flowing trains and outrageous hats, and today I ate my first watermelon of the season. Despite front page news of war and destruction, The Awkward Poser can find little tension in this world. In honor of so much spring, I offer a puff piece on a place I love without reservation – The Boston Conservatory.
The Boston Conservatory is the little brother among Boston’s three major institutions of music. The New England Conservatory opened after the Civil War in 1867 and its 750 students are part of an internationally known home of classical music and conducting. Berklee College of Music opened after World War II with the express purpose of teaching the music of the times, and has grown to 4,000 students, focusing mostly on jazz and other contemporary forms. The Boston Conservatory (TBC) is venerable (also dating to 1867) and smaller (650 students), though it offers a full complement of musical experience in orchestra, dance and theater. TBC’s tagline – The Boston Conservatory Performs! – is accurate to the point. Students at TBC are trained to make a living in every arena of live performance, and they do it with astonishing energy and ability. Combined, the three schools can hardly be said to have campuses; they inhabit buildings intermingled in a wedge of Boston real estate between Mass Ave and The Fenway, Boylston to Huntington. It is impossible to walk those streets without the sound of a saxophone or soprano wafting down from the brownstones; a magical quarter mile.
Although TBC is the jack of all trades of music schools, it is best known for its musical theater program, one of the few schools in the country to offer a specific degree in that form. There are always a dozen or so TBC graduates in current Broadway shows; at present the stars of Memphis and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert are TBC alums. I have attended their fall and spring musicals for over fifteen years; they rival any show in Boston and many in New York. In an era when it is cost prohibitive to stage giant shows with huge choruses, TBC has the quality and quantity of talent to produce a Sweeney Todd or West Side Story without stint.
Four years ago I met Richard Ortner, President of TBC, and we became fast friends. Richard introduced me to wider offerings of the school – the dance recitals, orchestra concerts and fully staged operas. Suddenly my fall and spring evenings became full of student productions. At the same time TBC has built a new theater and performance studio space. It is no rival New England Conservatory’s famous Jordan Hall, still it is a fine space to experience live performance, and I am proud of my small role in its success. But the essence of TBC, and why it is so special to me, cannot be witnessed on the main stage. The wonder of the place happens in the Zack Box.
The Zack Box Theater is a black room in the basement of an old building. It sits sixty people at most, and tickets to its shows are hotter than the Yankees at Fenway. Most productions are advertised only through word of mouth or posters plastered on the bulletin boards around the school. Most Zack Box shows are student affairs. Every senior and graduate student has to produce a show; they often write, direct and star in them as well. They corral fellow students to perform, which means that many TBC students are in 3-5 shows per semester with Zack Box productions often conceived and executed in two to three weeks.
So how good can a two week student production be? Excellent. I saw the best production of Assassins ever at Zack Box, an inventive interpretation of Hair, and a jubilant production of Bat Boy. I’ve attended premieres of original shows based on The Glass Castle and The Wally Show (a hilarious riff on Leave it to Beaver) that have legs strong enough to go on the road. In addition to these performances, the Zack also hosts the annual Drag Show and staged readings of the musical theater classes. Roger and Hammerstein’s Allegro, was recently presented as one in a series of shows mostly forgotten, yet the production had great spirit and represents an important link in theater history. The fifteen year old Stephen Sondheim was the gofer on Allegro and many threads of later Sondheim triumphs course through the book and the score.
Good productions aside, the real treat of seeing so many shows at TBC is witnessing the same young actors test their range. The chubby freshman from Dallas who was frightening as Samuel Byck, Nixon’s crazed assassin one week, turned up the next week shuffling through Guys and Dolls’ Fugue for Tinhorns; the alcoholic father of The Glass Castle sang a love ballad in the Freshman Revue; while the ever faithful Fifties mom from The Wally Show turned into the Acid Queen in The Who’s Tommy.
And then there are the parents, the siblings, the aunts who fly in from Phoenix and LA or drive up from Connecticut, filling the tiny venue in support of their children’s dreams. The tireless support they give these kids in their uphill struggle to make a life in performance is inspiring; yet they are equally pleased when during intermission chat I acknowledge that I don’t know a soul in the cast; I attend because the productions are so good. I provide important affirmation that their children’s talents are valued beyond family ties.
Still, my amazement at TBC transcends any of these specific experiences. As I child I loved to sing and dance and I have some talent in each. My fantasies were full of a life on stage, yet never once did I actually consider making those fantasies real. They were too removed from the workaday world of our tract house, they required a leap of faith and support well beyond my parent’s ability to give, and ultimately I did not have the confidence to embark on such an uncharted course on my own. It would be an overstatement to report this as regret, still I admit it is a dream that I allowed to whither unexplored.
So when I see those kids up there – the six foot four rail thin homosexual boy, the plump girl with Ethel Merman lungs, the absurdly handsome Adonis who would rather sing and dance than be a football star, and the leggy blonde who twists the lyric line of a soul tune – I see kids who were likely were outcasts in their high schools (at least, before the Glee phenomenon) but who have found a home at TBC. A community that allows them to embrace their uniqueness, develops their live performance skills despite our digital age, and fosters their vibrant talent. Some will make it to Broadway, a few will be stars, but my hat is off to all of them for their courage to try.