Let’s start at the very beginning: monotone delivery, swallowed words, everything said too fast; stiff bodies, slouching bodies, bodies that can’t sit still; and that annoying habit of ending a phrase of dialogue with a rise of the voice, as if it were a question?
Of course, that’s the glass-half-empty version of Clayton Middle School’s "The Sound of Music," and director Nanette Kearl has always been a glass-overflowing woman.
How the snippets became a story
Editor’s note: Elaine Jarvik knew she wanted to tell a backstage story after watching granddaughter Morgan Birch perform as Dorothy in the 2010 production of Clayton Middle School’s “The Wizard of Oz.” To write “The sound of being 14,” Jarvik followed the production for two months, from the posting of audition notices through rehearsals and performances, interviewing actors, parents and volunteers, even trailing the two young Marias as they got haircuts for the role.
So on an afternoon in January she stands on the school stage, looks around the auditorium and sees what someone more skeptical cannot: 230 teenagers who, in two months, will learn how to act — who will learn both how to sound like someone they’re not and how to be better versions of themselves.
That’s 230 chatty, fidgety, texting seventh- and eighth-graders in what is quite possibly the largest production ever of "The Sound of Music," so large in fact that it caused the play’s licensing company to wonder if Kearl had rewritten the script. She explained that she was simply thinking big: a double cast of leads, 63 nuns, 27 party guests, 29 Nazis, and on and on.
Kearl’s goal isn’t just to put on a first-class musical, but also to cast as many students as try out, as long as their grades and citizenship keep them eligible. Every year the musical gets bigger and more elaborate.
She volunteers to do this because she believes in theater and in teenagers, and in what happens when you trust the two to transform each other. Still, it’s never an easy ride, even if you’re unflappable. Before she gets to opening night there will be questions about commitment, drama over the kisses written into the script, that incident of the swastikas in the boys bathroom, sleepless nights and tears.
And even a week before opening it will seem, to a skeptic at least, that this will be the year when the musical might never quite come together.
13 going on … • Being 13 or 14 means you aren’t a tweener but still in between, still a boy in braces but also mature enough to convincingly play a 40-year-old man. Which brings us to Clayton’s dance room on an afternoon in early January.
Josh Whisenant walks up to the wall of mirrors and punches toward it with his fist. "I don’t know why I did that," he says to several of the other leads who have gathered for diction work.
Josh is an industrious eighth grader who practices the piano for an hour before school each day and swims for two hours in the afternoon. He talks with the deep voice of a man, is serious and considerate, and reports that he eats four apples a day.
He’s new to Clayton this year. The school sits on Salt Lake City’s East Bench, drawing students from the upscale Harvard-Yale neighborhood, middle-income Sugar House and Central City.
On his first day, Josh says, he walked into the school feeling mean and tough, then looked around and said "What is this?" No one had headphones on, no one was pushing the dress code to the limits. People were being nice to each other. He also soon discovered that "the cool thing to do is to be in the play."
Josh shares the role of Captain von Trapp with Ethan Bennett. Kearl double-casts most lead roles to give more students a chance to perform and to have a built-in understudy. The upside is that the students can learn from shadowing their counterpart; the downside is that for the first month there are two sets of each character onstage.
This year it also means that 33 young actors must learn how to sound not like 21st-century Utah teenagers, but pre-World War II Austrians who happen to speak English. This task falls to Lee Willis, a veteran actor who has volunteered for the Clayton musical for four years.
His job is to get rid of the students’ "r’s", their broad vowels, their lazy consonants and their tendency to mumble quickly through dialogue. To get them to say "frienDs" not "frenz," "Keut" not "Kurt." To get them to be bigger onstage: more menacing or earnest or flamboyant.
He knows how hard it is to be bold. As an eighth-grader in San Diego in the 1960s, he was a transfer student, an outsider who was painfully shy until a teacher suggested he join a drama class. Then came a part in the school’s production of "Cinderella." When scenery fell over, he learned he had a knack for improvising. There were standing ovations.
"Get out of this kind of mind-set of speaking like a 14-year-old girl," Wallis tells Sarah Sheffield and Ellie Carlson, double cast as the snooty Baroness Elsa Schraeder. "Talk like your mother."
"That’s weak, I want it stronger," Willis instructs Atticus Edwards, who plays the Nazi Herr Zeller. "You said that like you were ordering a pizza."
Willis tells them: "You’re going to hate me until opening night."
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