Andrea Green's musicals are for kids, but they're not kids stuff!
By Jonathan Takiff, Daily News Staff Writer
September 03, 2014
SOME PEOPLE, like Andrea Green, never fully grow up. Lucky for her - and for the thousands of others (young and young in spirit) who've been touched by Green's work as a Philadelphia-based music therapist and composer of acclaimed, bighearted children's musicals.
Green's organic works aren't just toe-tapping good - chock-full of polished, pop/Broadway-style anthems that get you humming along. These nourishing shows are also good for you - as socially inclusive, thought-provoking and therapeutic as they are entertaining.
One of Green's 14 (!) originals, "The Return of Halley's Comet," has been touring this summer in far away Estonia, and (fingers crossed) may be excerpted in a presentation for President Obama this week, as he's visiting the Baltic country (and region) on his way to a peace-focused NATO summit conference in Wales.
A lot closer to home, Green's firstborn (31 years ago) show performed by and for kids, "On the Other Side of the Fence," will be celebrated tomorrow at 8 p.m. on MiND-TV (Channel 35, a/k/a WYBE) with a newly completed documentary that explores the musical's origins and noble mission: making connections and building bridges between mainstream and special-needs kids.
Keep a box of Kleenex handy as you watch it.
As with "Halley's Comet" and her other, most-oft produced show, "Homeroom the Musical" (which predated Disney's "High School Musical" by a mere 18 years), "Other Side" grapples with issues of alienation, low self-esteem and suspicion of others that almost all kids feel at vulnerable points in their lives.
"I'm still haunted by memories of being a geeky teenager," confessed the 60-years-young Green with a laugh in a recent conversation. "What it felt like going it alone, not feeling accepted but desperately wanting to be."
Yet in the next breath (or in the next snappy, soft-shoe song), you'll likely hear Green celebrating that "being different, standing up for yourself" is a very good thing:
"It's the combination that makes you special, the combination that makes you you/All the little different parts/Mix 'em up and there it starts/The combination that makes you you."
The one and only
When it comes to writing musicals, Green is clearly a breed apart. "Nobody else is presenting original shows like mine at children's theater conferences," she's observed. "Adaptations of fairy tales are usually the norm."
Franka Vakkum, the Estonian director of Generation Musical Theater who translated "Return of Halley's Comet," said she'd literally scoured the world for a multi-generational-appeal show that could grapple, metaphorically and amusingly, with the issues of stereotyping, intolerance and blind suspicion threatening civil war in her country. Issues comically dealt with in this show with the "invasion" of green (suited) "Halliens" who've clearly come in peace.
Amy Lesso, theater program director at Orchard Valley Middle School in Washington Township, N.J., introduced her students to "Homeroom the Musical" last semester.
"We'd done our share of the usual suspects - "Annie," "Once Upon a Mattress" "The Music Man" - which have a few important lead characters and a chorus, and really don't have much to say," Lesso said.
"Homeroom" by contrast, has 16 numbers where the entire cast (anywhere from 14 to 80 performers) is onstage, lending support to whoever's singing the lead.
"So you always feel part of the group," noted Green, letting her therapist side shine.
Performers voice their stresses, in song, over parental divorce, transferring to a new school, attention deficit disorder, classmate bullying, the pressures of grades and sports, unrequited crushes and crises in sexual identity.
The young Orchard Valley performers, polled after a show, called it "really relatable," "my story" and "the best thing I've ever done."
Caught on film
Couched as a tale of animals at adjacent, feuding farms who're both curious and afraid of one another, "On the Other Side of the Fence" was launched in 1983 by Green when she was a newbie music therapist at the University City-based HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy.
And from the other side of the fence came students and teacher Teresa Maebori of Germantown Friends School. She'd been motivated to reach out after hearing a student recklessly refer to another as a "retard."
As captured by documentary filmmaker Henry Nevison, TV viewers will see how difficult - at first - and how rewarding - in the long run - it is to put on this special production, which the two schools have done 10 times over.
The special-needs kids initially seem as distant and alien as Green's Halliens. Until the dividers break down and you see the light, feel the life and good cheer even severe paralysis cannot diminish in these young 'uns.
And in the center of it all, there's Green, running show rehearsals from the piano, never flagging in enthusiasm and encouragement.
What an inspiration.
With Maebori's recent retirement, Green is looking for new partner schools to keep tearing down fences. (An adjusted version of the show intended for conventional theater groups is also offered and oft performed through her vaunted show publisher/licensor Samuel French.)
Green's also working, at the moment, on a promising children's entertainment project for TV. And with more than a dozen musicals at the ready, she's contemplating starting her own, Philadelphia-based children's theater company - unless an established troupe wakes up and smells the hot cocoa, realizing there's lot more potential in kids' stagecraft than "Puss 'n Boots" and "The Wizard of Oz."