With a little professional help, fifth-graders at a St. Paul school create their own musical from the overture up
By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Feb. 10, 2002©
Not one fifth-grader at Linwood A+ Elementary School is standing still and silent.
This is hardly rare, but this isn’t a common day. The kids are piled on the school’s stage, scurrying like ants behind a blue velvet curtain separating them from their families, moments away from the debut of their musical.
“I’m so scared, my heart’s gonna stop,” one girl tells another.
“Wait. My hair’s messed up,” one boy squeals. “And where’s my stinkin’ hat?”
Another remembers he left his glasses in a classroom. A boy named Xue twists from side to side, clutching his stomach.
“Urrrgh!” he says. “I’m not prepared at all.”
Then someone notices the absence of Kia, a happy and mature-for-her-years girl who has an important role in the show.
“She’ll be here,” the director says.
“But what if she isn’t?” a student says.
The director stares into space, then spins away from the question and all these buzzing 10- and 11-year-olds. The show’s about to start, and the director has an audience of parents to address.
This isn’t the typical elementary-school play. These fifth-graders hashed out story lines with each other, wrote all the songs from scratch, built sets and crammed through rehearsals every morning for the first three weeks of December. Guiding the students were artistic directors working through a Minnesota Opera arts-in-schools program called Opera Ventures.
Even in the best economic climates, few schools commit money and students’ time to such long-term artistic residencies. Eight other Twin Cities elementary schools are investing in Opera Ventures residencies this year, but none is as committed to the program as St. Paul’s Linwood.
A public school, Linwood has hosted at least one Opera Ventures residency each year since opening in 1995 with an A+ curriculum — arts plus academics. Before this school year is through, Linwood’s fourth- and sixth-graders will also write and perform their own “operas.”
Ed Williams, a former teacher here directing his second Opera Ventures show, steps through the front curtains and settles down the 53 kids on stage.
“This is an amazing challenge,” he tells them. “The audience should not know you had a full day of school. The audience should not know you didn’t get your afternoon nap. It’s your responsibility to give the audience your best show ever.”
Williams races away from the stage, to see what he could do about his missing star.
MUSIC TO THEIR EARS
Linwood is within walking distance of the upscale shopping stops along Grand Avenue, but half the students here receive free or reduced-price lunches. The school looks like a converted warehouse — a classic brick hull with lots of concrete inside, covered in white paint, industrial carpets, artwork from kids at every grade level and photos from past concerts.
The school’s visual arts instructor, Micah Bloom, stands in the doorway of a classroom, strumming an acoustic guitar as the fifth-graders hustle in for their first day of this Opera Venture.
The kids jump and cheer at the first sight of Raymond Berg, a pianist and musician-for-hire who directed the music for the fourth-grade production last year, when these same kids wrote and staged a sci-fi fantasy called “The Intergalactic School of Wonder.”
The kids erupt in song when Berg plays the first few notes of last year’s title number on the piano. A girl rekindles the opening line of another year-old tune, “Mr. Loo-Loo La-La,” and her classmates step right in stride, as if they’d just rehearsed it yesterday.
It’s easy to see how these kids so easily recall a year-old libretto. Every morning starts with two or three run-throughs of every song they’ve written to that point, and nobody’s immune from humming the tunes in their dreams.
Berg estimates he has worked on 40 Opera Ventures shows over nine years. He clears the music from his mind after every production, as much for his sanity as to approach his next residency with a fresh mind. For the kids, the songs they write are branded into their hearts, forever stamping their memories of elementary school.
This year, directors are connecting the show to the school’s curriculum on immigration. Before the Thanksgiving break, the fifth-graders asked their parents and other family members about how they first came to this country. Berg now asks the kids why people would emigrate here.
Hands shoot up — “war,” “famine,” “opportunity,” “to follow other family members.” One boy tells how his Jewish ancestors were driven out of Russia because of “persecution.” Another boy mentions how others were forced here, through slavery. Their families’ stories, Berg tells the kids, will frame this year’s musical.
The kids bark out ideas for beginning their story — “piggy-backing,” as they’ve learned to call it, one student’s thoughts atop another’s. The consensus is grounding the musical in reality, setting the opening scene in a classroom, with a frustrated teacher assigning her grumbling students to interview their family members about coming to America.
“This is different than math or learning how to spell 20 words,” Berg tells the kids. “This is an assignment of learning who you are.”
Directors split the students into small groups to set this part of the story to song. All over the room, kids are sitting on desks, leaning over them, laughing, gesturing, singing, lobbing thoughts back and forth.
In one group are Kia, a smart and bright-eyed Hmong girl, and an animated bundle of ideas named Katie.
Off the top of her head, Katie sings: “I’m trying to give you homework.”
Kia sings back, “Don’t you know what a bad morning I’ve had?” and Katie writes down the words.
With the girls are two boys who can’t muster the inspiration to do more than doodle.
“Hellloooooo,” Kia says to them. The boys don’t blink.
With a sigh, Kia tells Katie, “We’re getting nowhere.”
MORE THAN A HISTORY LESSON
By the end of the first week, the students have collaborated on the starts of three songs and finished one, a sprightly ditty called “Homework.” They’ve sung it a dozen times in the past couple of days, and dozens of refrains lie ahead in the next two weeks.
Directors are combining and paring elements of the kids’ individual stories into the roles of five students, each with different ethnic and geographic legacies. Over the course of the musical, these students will discover their roots in Russia, Ireland, Laos, Africa and El Salvador, each played out in song.
Directors divide the kids into groups to create scenes and songs representing the immigration from each country.
Kia is a natural choice to lead the group writing the story coming from Laos. She’s not shy with her thoughts and ideas, which are more complex and reasoned than those coming from most fifth-graders. She has a fundamental understanding of how and why the Hmong came to America. And while Hmong youth tend to cluster among other Hmong, Kia seems comfortable with everyone.
There are seven kids in this group, including Kia, and they begin talking about why the Hmong left Laos.
“The Hmong people loved their land, and they wouldn’t want to leave,” Kia tells the others. “They were forced to leave.”
A Hmong boy named Xue tugs and twirls his eyelids as others in the group converge on a globe, to find Laos and the Mekong River. They also find Vietnam, where a boy named Tyler has roots.
“How many languages are there?” Tyler asks.
“Hundreds. Thousands,” Kia says.
“Oh, I thought there were only, like, 36,” Tyler says.
The Hmong students mention the importance of Gen. Vang Pao in Hmong history and migration to America.
“Didn’t some of them want to go?” a girl named Brooke asks.
“They were forced,” Kia says. “And sometimes they sacrificed themselves so others could live.”
The students lay out the framework for a story showing one Hmong family fleeing as North Vietnamese soldiers destroy their village. In their story, the father is killed and the eldest daughter shot, and the family grieves in song about having to abandon the daughter.
The kids work with the music director to come up with words and a melody, which becomes a haunting, plaintive ballad sung between the daughter, named Pa, and her mother.
We have to leave you behind, dear Pa
No mother, don’t leave me here to die
Without the family, there’s only emptiness inside me
Kim Kroeck, the school’s choral director, listens to those opening lines.
“You guys, I’m going to cry,” she says. “This isn’t ‘The Intergalactic School of Wonder’ anymore.”
MOMENTS OF TRUTH
Katie tugs at her cheeks, and Kia scrunches her face in a grimace. The girls are among the first shuttled through auditions, a ritual of every Opera Ventures production.
“Oh, boy. Why did I have nightmares about this?” Katie says, holding her stomach. “Can I just fall down right now?”
Director Ed Williams, seated with a clipboard on his lap, smiles at Katie and the other five girls lined up in front of him.
“I know you just had your tonsils out, but you have such vivacious energy,” he tells Katie. “I’m sure you’ll be great no matter what part you play.”
As each student sings a few lines from one of the show’s songs, Williams rates them on scales of 1-to-5 and jots notes such as “low confidence,” “strained,” “strong,” “good presence” and “very quiet.”
A boy named Glenn steps up, hands clasped together, and says, “Please like my voice.”
The auditions are a formality for an artistic and funny boy named John, whose parents’ trek from El Salvador to America is one of the show’s storylines.
John’s mother and father paid “coyotes” — people who smuggle others across borders — to cross Mexico into America. His parents spent a year apart, his mother waiting in Los Angeles for her husband, a soldier in El Salvador’s revolutionary war, to survive and arrive. John was born in California, the eldest of four children in his family.
He was eager to share his story with his classmates and directors but now is beginning to regret it. Directors have cast John in the role of his father, and it looks as if John will have to sing a catchy, melodic love song with a classmate named Patty, who is cast as John’s mother.
Williams sends John and Patty off to come up with ideas for their scene together. John tries to beg off.
“Aww, it’s embarrassing,” he says, dipping his head and scraping the soles of his shoes against the carpet.
“No, it isn’t,” Williams says. “It’s life.”
“Well, it’s a little embarrassing,” Patty says. “But we’re professionals. We can do this.”
John and Patty drag a couple of chairs and a desk into a hallway. Patty gets out a pencil and some paper. John softly bangs his head against a locker.
“I should have never opened my big mouth,” he says.
Patty smiles but plugs away.
“Maybe the mother says ‘I’ve been looking for you for so long,’ ” she says. “And then the father says ‘I’ve been looking for you, too.’ ”
“The more you talk, the more weird I get,” he says.
John slumps and raps his head against the back of the seat.
“How about ‘I’ve been so lonely?’ ” Patty urges.
“I’m just not old enough for this,” John says.
Patty looks him in the eye.
“I’m not old enough, either,” she says with a chuckle. “But you have to pull it together.”
John slithers out of his chair and sprawls on the hallway floor.
“I don’t know how teen-agers do this,” he says.
A couple of girls grouse over the casting, but most of the kids grab with gusto onto their slices of the show.
A girl named Adria, who has studied Irish step-dancing outside of school, relishes her chance to choreograph a jig for the song representing a family’s immigration from Ireland. She and three other girls find floor space in a hallway, where Adria places everyone in a line and runs through the steps.
“Hop, hop, back-step-in,” Adria says as she dances on her toes. “Knee-step-in, point-hop-back.”
One of the girls, Charlotte, jumps and claps after finishing the pattern.
“I did it, ooooh,” she says. “I so understand this.”
Adria smiles at her own handiwork.
“I’m so proud, I’m so proud,” she says.
Charlotte turns to Adria and thrusts her arms up.
The show is supposed to start, and Kia’s still at home, a good 10-minute drive from the school.
Mary Harty, the principal of Linwood, races with Williams to a telephone, along with the father of another Hmong student. On the other end of the line is Kia’s father, who tells the interpreting parent he didn’t drive Kia to school tonight because he has a bad headache.
The color is draining from Williams’ face.
“We’ve been doing this for three weeks, and she has a very big part,” Williams tells the interpreting parent, who translates Williams’ words to Kia’s father. “We need her.”
Kia’s father doesn’t understand. Williams gets back on the phone with Kia.
“Will you ask him one more time?”
Harty takes the phone to speak with Kia’s mother. The title of principal penetrates the language and cultural barriers, and Kia’s parents give their approval to have someone pick up Kia and bring her to the school.
Williams let out a large exhale, then runs backstage. His troops are restless, and so are the 150 parents and others who have gathered for the show.
“One thing you need to remember in theater is focus. I see some focused kids, and I see some crazy kids who are bouncing off the walls,” Williams tells the students. “We started with one word — immigration — and now we have all these wonderful songs and wonderful sets. We’ve got a good show, now let’s make it a great show.”
Williams steps through the closed curtains and stretches out his welcome to the parents, thanking everyone he could possibly thank. Kia jogs backstage through a side door, and every classmate who can reach her greets Kia with a hug and smile of relief.
With Berg seated at the piano, the overture begins.