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Junior High School Musical: Can cast climb ev’ry mountain?
Stage » Before opening night, questions about commitment, drama over onstage kisses, swastikas in the boys bathroom, sleepless nights and tears.

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How do you solve a problem like … • Being 13 or 14 is always about learning how to act: how to curb your urge to hang upside down on the railing in the auditorium. How to stifle your desire to chew gum when the director has reminded you a million times about the no-gum rule. How to sit patiently through 100 hours of rehearsal. How to sacrifice.

On a sunny Friday in February, with fresh powder in the mountains, Johny Fredrick texts Kearl to say he’s going skiing. Johny is one of the show’s two Rolfs, the 17-going-on-18 telegram delivery boy who joins the Nazis after wooing 16-going-on-17 Liesl von Trapp. Johny is student-body president, the kind of boy whom other boys crowd around and girls lean toward when he’s talking.

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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.

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Already, during the past six weeks, Johny has missed several rehearsals and has left early to get to ski team practice. Today, when Johny shows up 90 minutes late, Kearl sits down with him on the steps of the stage to have a talk. Does he really want to be in the musical?

Later, in the empty auditorium, Kearl wonders, "Am I asking him to be something he doesn’t want to be?" Johny’s ambivalence makes her sad. And then she thinks of another cast member, seventh-grader Erik Hulbert, and Kearl begins to cry. "I have a kid whose mother is dying. They sit and talk about the play so they don’t have to talk about the inevitable. He has only so many moments with his mother and he comes to play practice."

Kearl leaves school feeling demoralized, but later that night Johny and his mother drive to Kearl’s house to tell her he’s decided he’ll quit the ski team, even though it cost him $750, money he earned mowing lawns and shoveling walks.

Johny says he doesn’t want to disappoint his parents or his big brother, who had a starring role in last year’s Clayton show. Many of the cast have siblings who have performed in one of the past 11 productions; this is one way Kearl creates the kind of buzz that persuades teenage boys to be in a musical, even if they might have to wear sailor suits. Most of them just a year or two ago sat in this same auditorium as sixth-graders and idolized the big kids onstage.

Kearl is relieved that Johny is still on board, but won’t be convinced until she sees how much energy he’s willing to put into his part.

The next day, on Valentine’s weekend, a dozen girls from the cast sneak into Kearl’s yard and plaster the door and fence with pink paper hearts. They leave her gushy notes, full of exclamation marks.

"My girl! You are truly amazing to find a way to make each and everybody feel special," writes Nell Stevens, who plays Liesl.

Kearl teaches dance at Clayton but volunteers hundreds of hours to direct the play. She lives in the Clayton neighborhood, though she currently has no children at the school. The bottom line, says volunteer stage manager Becky Dunham, is that Kearl respects the students.

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"She doesn’t wear them down, she loves them up," is how Kearl’s husband explains it.

And it’s true that on the rare occasion when Kearl shows the slightest frustration with the student actors, she hardly raises her voice. She refers to them as "men and women." She always says "please."

Totally unprepared am I … • When you’re a boy who is 13 going on 14, you might never have kissed a girl. But a musical that theoretically includes three kisses might give you the opportunity.

Although junior highs in Utah with ninth-graders sometimes include a stage kiss, Clayton is a middle school, so there’s always been an unofficial no-kiss policy. But that doesn’t mean The Kiss doesn’t become a significant subplot as rehearsals progress. "It’s just a storm, this kiss," reports Josh Whisenant’s mom. "It’s all he talks about."

Some of the boys, in fact, have been raising money to persuade Josh to kiss his Maria, Abi Busath, and some of the girls have been trying to talk Ethan Bennett into kissing his Maria, Eden Brush.

In January, there’s this exchange between Lizzie Card, one of the two Liesls, and Nanette, during the "16-Going-On-17" scene with Max Hamilton.

Lizzie: A hug? That’s weak.

Kearl: Do you want to kiss him?

Lizzie: No, I don’t. I’m just saying. (pause) What about a kiss on the hand?

Kearl: A kiss on the hand is kind of old.

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