A few nights ago, Kathy and I sat down to watch a copy of the Racine Theater Guild’s 1997 production of Joseph and the amazing technicolor dreamcoat, which to this day remains (I believe) the RTG’s all-time box office champ. (My wife was proud to sing in the ensemble of that production, and it was a very special experience for her as well because it was the very first time that she sang on the RTG stage – the start of something really good. And her sister Polly was part of the ensemble as well.) I vividly remember the soaring excitement which surrounded those performances; this production was a game-changer for the RTG in more ways than one. They had never mounted a musical this large – or at least not in recent memory – and there had to have been more than a little trepidation going into it of whether or not they could pull it off. But pull it off they did, and those of us who were on our feet cheering at the end of that very last performance were cheering as much for the audacious courage of the guild as we were the actual performance we had experienced. It was an electrifying moment that I will remember for as long as I live. And watching the video of that performance after all these years was incredibly fun. There were many ways in which the technical look of the production was a bit more primitive- some directorial choices that were a bit odd- but it was impossible not to be swept up in all of the excitement and to feel an intense sense of admiration for a job well done, even after all of these years. (I was delighted to hear that this particular archival video – not available to the public, but which had been shared with us – was indeed filmed at the very last performance of that record-breaking run, and all of us who were lucky enough to be there felt like we were experiencing a bit of history.)
That production from twenty years ago also forged some powerful friendships, some of which last to this very day. I know that my wife, for one, is forever grateful that this production allowed her to meet a young woman in the crew named Kara Ernst-Schalk who has become one of her dearest friends … and served as our marvelous narrator for this revival.
It took a different kind of courage for the guild to re-mount Joseph this year because we were taking on this exceptionally challenging show and risking comparison with the legendary production from twenty years ago. We knew that there would be all kinds of people coming to our performances who would remember the ’97 production with great affection; would our production measure up in their minds? It wasn’t even so much that stage director Doug Instenes and I had any serious doubts about our production or our cast. In just about every way, we knew we had a first-rate production that reflected all of the ways in which the guild has flourished and grown over the last two decades. But would people receive it and appreciate it as ferociously as they did back in 1997? Would they love it? That was the question.
I am thrilled to report that the answer to that question was a most emphatic YES. Our new production sold sensationally well – but more important than that, it generated enthusiasm and affection very much like the production twenty years ago. You could just sense it from the moment people walked into the theater – a very special electricity in the air, a sense of heightened expectation. And every performance ended with sweeping standing ovations and cheers- and with good reason. We had a splendid cast, skilled crew, spectacular sets and costumes, marvelous choreography, effective and imaginative staging … but beyond all of that, we had one more thing that you want to have in every musical and absolutely must have when you do ‘Joseph’: love. I think this is one of those shows that simply will not work at all unless the people on that stage have a genuine love for one another. All of the other theatrical elements can be polished to perfection, but you need love to make it all mesh. We are actually incredibly fortunate at the RTG that we manage to achieve a level of excellence that rivals that of professional companies while retaining that sense of family that makes community theater so special. In the case of this particular production, we were blessed with a cast that included a mother-daughter, a mother-son, and a father-daughter.
Also part of this production was a certain Assistant Stage Manager whose beautiful and talented niece (who also happens to be my niece) was in the cast.
And I really love the fact that one of the children who graced the production back in 1997, Samantha Sustachek, was back twenty years later as one of the wives of Joseph. And one of the brothers of Joseph in 1997, Brian Schalk, was a brother once again – this time entrusted with the solo “one more angel in heaven.” Those kind of tangible connections between the two productions, in both the cast and crew, were their own contribution to the strong sense of family and community that any production of Joseph needs to embody.
Of course, we could not have had a show if our wonderful cast hadn’t been matched with a truly blue ribbon crew that was more than equal to the extraordinary technical demands of this show. But beyond their skill, our crew also contributed mightily to the positive spirit that was part of this production from the very start.
When I think back to several of our most recent productions- Mary Poppins, Fiddler on the Roof, Spamalot, Les Miserables– I just smile ear to ear because I think of the people who made them happen and the love that was at the heart of them all. And that was certainly the case with this particular production and with a cast that was all we could have asked for both in terms of sheer excellence as well as in kindness, grace and appreciativeness for one another and with their terrific crew. It was the kind of experience where you feel like saying ‘this is as it should always be’ – where you just feel so incredibly grateful to be part of it. I felt that gratitude with every rehearsal and performance, and even down in the green room both before and after performances, when you get a sense of who people are away from the spotlight.
After one of the shows during our closing weekend, I was touched when a very enthusiastic young lady with Down Syndrome was going around to every cast member she could find and excitedly asking for their autograph. I was especially touched by how sweetly she was treated by the kids in our children’s chorus. It did your heart good to see that. And that young lady, in her unbounded enthusiasm, reminded all of us of how powerful live theater can be, especially when it’s done really well. You can go see the most spectacular movie ever made and have your socks knocked off, but when it’s over there is no green room where you can meet the cast and thank them. That only happens in the world of live theater.
So in the end, no matter how visually, musically and theatrically spectacular our new Joseph was, I think Doug and I keep coming back to the wonderful people who made it happen and who made it worth doing. None of this would mean a thing without the deep bonds of friendship, respect and gratitude that springs up between cast and crew and staff when you undertake such a challenging show. You learn some very valuable lessons when you do live theater – including patience ….. humility …. teamwork …. perseverance ….. trust ….. imagination …. creativity ….. sensitivity …. and on and on. It’s certainly an arena where plenty of things can go wrong, where one can get hurt (in more ways than one,) where one is almost certain to taste some painful disappointments, and where one occasionally sees people at less than their best. But it’s also a place where you can experience some of the richest and most lasting joys that life can offer, and when everything is as it should be, you find yourself saying “I love these people!” and “I cannot imagine my life without them!”
That’s what matters most.