Despite long-overdue support for sexual abuse victims, there's a profound threat to their credibility, and the efforts of those who seek justice on their behalf, that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, much less the time of Salem.

ANGRY WITCH.jpg

I have a friend. He's a wonderful, good, honest, caring man I've known and worked closely with for more than 25 years. I know him like a brother. I've watched him work with children literally hundreds of times, including his own, I know his family, his job history, his dreams, goals, fears and hopes.  Several months ago, this man- this profoundly good man- was accused anonymously on an online message forum of "sexual abuse" of a child. And others quickly and anonymously chimed in: "this man should be reported, etc"- and still others, also anonymous: "he probably did that to lots of kids, etc", and the inevitable, still anonymous: "he did that to me, too!". When he showed me the thread, he was clearly clueless. He didn't understand what he might have done to make someone feel the need to accuse him of such a thing. It was a complete anomaly in his life in terms of even a hint of corroboration, and glaringly alien to his character.  Typical of his innocent nature, he was also confused as to why his accusers posted anonymously; he is not someone to be feared- he does not have money, celebrity status, or power. If the accusations were valid, why didn't the persons come forward and lodge formal complaints? Or at least be more specific as to what took place?

We are at long last living in an era of heightened sensitivity toward the victims of sexual harassment and abuse- and most notably, a willingness to believe them.

Don't misunderstand me. That's a wonderful thing, in itself. Numerous victims can finally come forward, identify themselves, and openly bring valid allegations of sexual misconduct to the light without having their credibility challenged at every turn.

Due to the courage and candor of these women, despicable and unforgivable behavior of men like Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, and others of their ilk is steadily being dragged into the light. This is a major sociological shift that's raising consciousness, changing societal standards, increasing the level of legal intolerance, and serving as an effective deterrent. 

Please read the above two paragraphs again if you think I'm against this progress.

But here's the thing.

The real heros of today's "me too" movement- the brave women and children who have brought down the worst offenders of our generation- all demonstrated their courage, their credibility, their honesty, and most importantly, achieved success, by stepping forward, identifying themselves, and expressing their allegations openly.

They didn't post their claims anonymously on the internet.

It's hard to avoid noticing how easily the web can become the 1692 Salem of our generation. Although in one terrible way, it's even worse.

Consider that In order to have their allegations taken seriously, fabricated or not, every accuser during that terrible time faced two major, intractable requirements:

  • Anonymous gossip wasn't enough, no matter how graphic. The accused, guilty or not, would suffer few if any major consequences until the accusers stepped forward, identified themselves, and made a formal allegation which included a detailed statement, true or not, about exactly what they claim took place.

GOD KNOWS.jpg
  • Accusers further had to have the courage to face the person they were accusing, state their allegations, and listen- along with everyone who heard the allegation- as the accused responded. 

The take-away here?

I wish my friend had those advantages.

At this point in our history, any anonymous person has the power to spew out to the public literally any accusation about anyone from a hidden vantage point, with no fear of facing exposure, defamation charges, or any other consequences and- worst of all- enjoy absolute assurance that their accusations will be acted upon by many in the name of "due diligence" or by those who believe they've stumbled on the "real scoop".

And then the hysteria, mass-sharing and re-tweeting begins: "Hey, did you see this!!!???"

Which is exactly what happened to my friend. Solely on the basis of an anonymous thread on the internet, he was suspended from his teaching position "pending investigation", and despite being quickly, officially, and resoundingly cleared of any misconduct, and although everyone in the administration knew in their hearts from day one that the posts had been fabricated, his reputation was irreparably damaged and his teaching career was over. One anonymous thread on a Google-friendly gossip board was all it took. 

This did nothing to help the "me too" movement. It did nothing to help the real victims, nor anyone else. Instead, it hurt everyone involved- my friend, his students, the school, everyone.  In fact, the only people anonymous internet posts do NOT hurt are the abusers.

It strikes me that during the time of Salem, there must have been many village residents who had real or imagined grievances with their neighbors, but for whatever reason might not have been willing to confront them openly. If so, and if somehow Salem had the internet back then, and if the authorities had acted upon anonymous posts, it's likely that more than half the population would have been jailed within days.

This would undoubtedly have brought Salem's "me too" movement to a quick halt, which would have been a good thing back then. Not so much now.

But there's a counter-argument.

Recently, there have been some convincing studies showing that the majority of all sexual allegations have ultimately been proven true. 

I believe those studies, and I'm glad they exist.

But these are NOT the allegations I'm writing about. These studies do NOT include allegations posted anonymously on the internet.

There are no studies regarding the latter and there never will be. Why? Because short of a high-tech multi-billion dollar research project, there is no realistic method of surveying whether or not anonymous allegations are valid. Which means the anonymous posters have no fear of accountability which in itself should make any such posts highly suspect to say the least.

This reminds me of Voltaire's famous dictum: "It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one." 

We must continue to hunt and catch the true abusers- today's real "evil witches”. Their victims must continue to emerge openly, continue to have the courage to identify themselves, continue to make sure the authorities are informed, and continue to work hard to see their abusers brought to justice.

ANONYMOUS.jpg

But how infuriating it would be if these victims once again found their allegations met with renewed skepticism, doubt, or indifference as they have been for centuries. And how ironic it would be if the most advanced technology in the world, the internet, was responsible for such a giant step backwards. 

Yet that's exactly what we're witnessing now, due to the frenzied barrage of anonymous and dubious claims on highly visible online group forums, social media sites, message boards, and the like. 

These anonymous, often sensational online claims, whether malicious or misguided- and especially the willingness to believe them- do nothing but undermine the true victims- especially those who have had the courage, honesty, and commitment to step forward, identify themselves, face their abusers, and express their allegations openly. 

Shouldn't we honor their struggle by at least matching the most basic procedural standards for determining justice back in 1692?

Until next time, take good care of yourself.

Thank you.

Peter Sklar

The Back-Up Plan

The absolute worst, most destructive career advice for young people with a dream is that they should cultivate a back-up plan. The advice usually goes something like:

"There's so much competition and rejection out there that you need something more realistic and practical to fall back on."

I'm not old enough to remember the Great Depression. But I was raised by parents who grew up in it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Sklar. 

And they inherited from my grandparents what I used to call a "post-Depression mentality". I believe this may be the most tragic legacy of that unfortunate era.

Most people would agree that...

  • putting food on the table

  • making your rent or mortgage payments

  • keeping the lights and heat on

...are all major necessities. Yet, believe it or not, there are life goals that are more important than those things, and should sometimes take precedence!

While this may seem irresponsible, I believe that in the long run, it is even more irresponsible to choose financial security over personal and professional fulfillment.

In other words:

I am firmly opposed to sacrificing your dreams for the sole purpose of paying your bills of the moment.

Consider the following:

When Enron Corporation went out of business, more than 20,000 full-time career employees lost their jobs and their livelihood. It's reasonable to assume that had these people been asked when they were in their teens and early twenties what they would most love to do in the future, most of them would not have said: "I'd like to devote my life to working full time for a big energy and commodities company."

It's more likely they would have expressed interest in a number of other things such as...

  • running their own business
  • marine biologist
  • jet pilot
  • writer
  • musician
  • movie actor

... or a hundred other career paths.

It's also likely that at some point in their lives they expressed that dream to someone- a parent, teacher, friend, whoever, and it's further likely they met with something less than absolute full support and encouragement.

Yet, the people who sacrificed their dreams to work for a corrupt and ultimately bankrupt company may NOT be the most unfortunate individuals, career-wise. They might now be able to adopt a better-late-than-never approach and finally pursue those long-deferred goals.

But what about those who work for companies that are sound and stable?

When one's job is secure, all the bills are paid, there's an abundance of material comfort, and money in the bank, that may be the ideal vantage point from which to realize that one's whole life has been only about those things.

That slow and tortuous realization can spawn what I call "the mother of all mid-life crises". What is that?

Waking up at age fifty or so, realizing you never did what you really wanted to do, and it's too late.

How do I recommend avoiding that? What do I consider a career plan that's "realistic and practical", yet certain to lead to fulfillment?

Just four steps...

  • pick something you love

  • work hard

  • work smart

  • don't let anyone talk you out of it.

Until next time, take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

Are You a Handicapped Voter?

Simple question. Are you?

Why can't there be a basic educational requirement before Americans are permitted to vote? We do have the means to administer such a test fairly (see below), and I suspect most of those who'd object would do so out of misguided liberal concerns of discrimination... or because they sense they themselves would fail.

Sorry, but I'm so sick of fear and ignorance at the voting booth.

My first step would be to assemble a diverse group of people to develop the test. I'd include well-educated members of virtually every American societal, economic, racial, and cultural demographic, as well as people who speak fluently in the language of all our significant population groups- those that represent at least 10% of the country.

Although I'm wide open to input here, for now the only things I can think of they'd all have in common are a college education which included ample American and world history, sociology, psychology, ethics, and a desire to raise our voters' level of critical and objective thinking.

Then- and this obliterates the "discrimination" theory- we give every citizen all the questions and answers in advance- with plenty of time to study!

Come the day of the elections, you didn’t study and prepare, you don't vote. Period. Why? You're making a decision that effects many people's lives- you should know what you're doing. 

Some will point out, accurately, that there are people who don't have the cognitive skill to study effectively or navigate such a test due to this or that mental handicap.

About that:  apart from the fact that such individuals would probably have a difficult time making a truly informed choice at the voting booth under any circumstances, handicaps come in all shapes and sizes.

In my opinion, there are far more debilitating intellectual handicaps than impaired cognitive skills.

For example, we currently have large numbers of voters who are severely handicapped by their fear, ignorance, and poor critical thinking. Typically, this means a lack of education and the brainwashed perception that Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh are the Three Wise Men. Such people are usually easy to frighten and manipulate, highly susceptible to acting on their fears, and would typically find posts such as this elitist and condescending rather than sadly accurate. 

Worst of all, they vote.

So. Let's address the above handicap first, before we focus on voting challenges among far smaller population groups with horrible conditions such as advanced dementia, significant retardation, and other forms of severe cognitive impairment, as tragic as those conditions are.

My thoughts.

Until next time, take good care of yourself.

Thank you.

Peter

Voting for Good Things

Millions of us noted sadly how the dwindling number of die-hard Trump supporters never grew weary of attacking everything Obama for eight years, (the Tea Party crowd, Sarah Palin, Fox News, etc.), how they still drop asides about Hilary, yet no matter how many juvenile tweeting frenzies, errors of judgment, ridiculous election promises (the wall around Mexico is my personal favorite), racist and “grab the pussy” statements, the disdain of a growing number of his fellow Republicans, and endless scandals (most recently his involvement with Russia’s tampering with our elections)… it's like a mantra of the brainwashed: "He's not so bad... give him a chance... all you liberals do is attack… "

(Not at all like that fortress of open-mindedness, objectivity, and truth, Fox News, whose less-than-well-educated followers are fond of declaring: "They tell it like it is." Yawn.)

I have experienced fifteen presidential elections. I have never seen such blind hypocrisy and brainwashing. I recall Bush's relative innocence; all he did was crash the economy and purposely send thousands of American soldiers to their death in Iraq for family-run oil interests. The latest Republican president has built upon the existing paranoia, racism, societal divisions and profound dishonesty (remember Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction"?) of those years and raised it to a state of the art.

My concern is that if we don't speak out and write things like this, it may be the end of the Roman Empire.

Frankly, I believe the Republican party has been hijacked. I further believe the only way to correct that is to realize that at this point in history we may now have to choose between the evils of big American government (Clinton, Obama, etc.) which is at least guided by a vision of helping its citizens, and the evils of big American business, (Bush, Trump, etc.) which is guided solely and entirely by visions of profit and power. Not to mention that with big business you get both profit and control of that feared big government via lobbying and campaign underwriting. 

Given that unfortunate choice, I’ll take my chances with government at least for now.

Let's all try to beat a path through the constant simple-mindedness and paranoia-mongering of Fox News, i.e. Sean Hannity conjuring up images of a"dangerous left-wing conspiracy". (Right. That's what's wrong with America-  that darn left-wing conspiracy.) Instead, let's vote for things like better public education, greater access to college, protection of the environment, genuine improvement of health care rather than blindly dismantling everything Obama, better working conditions and higher pay for the lower economic spectrum of the working class, funding for the arts, an end to racism and sexism... you know- good things.

Until next month, take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

 

PART V: WHY I MIGHT FINALLY BE A BROADWAY PRODUCER

(Please scroll down for Parts I - IV)

I had recently enjoyed seeing a hilarious musical revue called Pumpboys and Dinettes which opened in 1982 at the newly-named Princess Theater, formerly the old Latin Quarter. I somehow learned that the owner, whose name I don't recall, was looking for shows to produce that would help establish his new venue as a legitimate theater. I approached him and asked if we might give one performance of my showcase, consisting entirely of my own songs, on his stage. The idea was that if he liked what he saw, he'd mount the showcase as a full-fledged Off Broadway musical at the theater. He agreed, and the kids and I performed our musical numbers, and some brief bits of connecting dialogue I had hastily written, to an audience of mostly parents and industry people. I recall that the audience seemed to genuinely like my songs. The overwhelming feedback, however, was that without a major adult story line, the songs alone would never generate an audience.

I went home unsettled, but with a gut feeling that I could do this. Over the next few months, I continued my showcases, discussion groups, and piano playing, but found myself increasingly distracted and frustrated as to how to go about writing a "major adult story line".

Then, one morning I woke up with an idea that literally made me laugh out loud. To this day, I marvel at how it eluded me for so long, especially since I had inadvertently stumbled on the well-known creative axiom: "You write what you know".

That morning, Benny Rosen was born. An aging former Vaudevillian and children's coach, Benny lived and worked in a small, museum-like studio in New York's Times Square neighborhood. The idea of writing a story about this old man and his young students was tantalizing. It seemed like the perfect idea- something I felt I related to, could easily write, and would personally like to see on a stage. After playing with some dialogue, however, I came to what should have been an obvious conclusion: I had a good main character, a good situation, and some good songs, but no story line whatsoever, and no clue how to write one.

Over the next couple of years, I hired and fired a series of writers. I was hoping desperately that one of them would basically write the show for me. Unfortunately, none of them created anything I wanted to use. It soon became terrifyingly clear that if I wanted to tell Benny's story, or mine, as it were, I would have to write it myself.

Our audiences had slowly dwindled at the Comic Strip, and my Professional Children's Revue had come to an end. Still, I kept my Broadway hopes alive by holding on to a small group of talented students who were willing to continue rehearsing my songs, along with experimenting with dialogue and scenes. The title had become The Kid Who Played the Palace, and my ambitions had evolved beyond Off Broadway. Despite having no story, nobody to write one, and no money to speak of, I had succumbed to an inner whirlwind of fantasy and wishful thinking, and was announcing to anyone who would listen that I was producing The Kid Who Played the Palace for Broadway.

To this day, I believe I just might have done it, and well within that average eight-year window, if it hadn't been for a phone call from none other than Ray Diamond of Camp Lokanda. Ray knew I was coaching kids in New York and, by then, Westchester County, and he presented an idea. He suggested I organize a resident musical theater clinic that would take place at his camp, immediately following his regular season. At first, I turned him down, viewing this as a distraction from my work on my show.

I had no idea how accurate that was. That "distraction" would last more than thirty years and counting. It was the founding moment of both the Beginnings Workshop and my lecture career.

My father had directed camps throughout my childhood, and I had grown up spending most of my summers in cabins surrounded by woods. The idea of being in charge of my own musical theater program in a camp environment proved irresistible. I called Ray and we began planning what was to eventually evolve far beyond the scope of a camp.

My first year, the parents of one of our students informed me she owned a theater group somewhere in Tennessee, and offered to pay my expenses as well as a small fee if I would visit and speak to her students about the realities of a career in the industry. I had no experience with kids from the south, and all sorts of stereotypical images lept to mind. In the talk, I described the industry to the best of my ability, focusing mostly on my opinions and views as to which sorts of kids tended to reach success, and which didn't, and why. Harvard met Broadway as I found myself weaving together such unlikely topic-mates as self-worth and the needs of New York agents and casting directors. In short, I asserted that the sort of kids that were most desirable in the industry were those who exhibited the confidence and openness that only a truly happy, self-accepting kid would have.

It was the first time I had ever said that, and the first time I had ever lectured about, well, anything. It was also the last time I ever accepted payment for giving a lecture. I found I didn't need to. Several of those children, like thousands who would follow, ended up attending my workshops, which barely surpassed the travel cost of my trip. I considered this more than adequate compensation, and still do.

The most interesting part of my visit to Tennessee was interviewing the kids, which immediately followed the lecture. Once again, I observed a few fascinating but superficial differences between kids from different backgrounds, such as their accents, which I found adorable, and yet far deeper similarities. It occurred to me even back then that the points I was making had importance that transcended show business.

A decade or so later, my workshops and lectures had evolved well beyond Ray Diamond's initial distraction. They had become my proverbial and literal day jobs; I was lecturing to thousands of students each year from all parts of the United States, and eventually Canada, and directing workshops that would soon spread from New York to Hollywood and even London.

Although The Kid Who Played the Palace had been forced into the background, rarely a day went by that I didn't spend at least a few minutes working on a lyric, melody, or piece of dialogue. I had enlisted a prominent Broadway expert and director named Bill Martin to dramaturge, and in 2004, we conducted stage readings of what was then a primitive script and score at the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck, NY. This was immediately followed by a semi-orchestrated demonstration recording of the songs. Echoing my experience from twenty years earlier, the songs were again well-received, but the general consensus was that the story line was weak.

After many more years of intermittent work, with continued input from Dr. Martin, I enlisted a friend and professional writer, Lee Stringer, to assist with dialogue. Lee's input proved invaluable, and largely as a result, I decided it was once again time to put  the show in front of an audience.

This winter and spring (2018), I will again be mounting staged readings of the script and score of The Kid Who Played the Palace. The hope is of course that the production is at long last close to being presentable to a Broadway audience.

That said, if the show is still not ready after this winter/spring, I'm sadly confident that life will continue to provide ample, irresistible distractions and opportunities for even further delay.

Hope however does seem to spring eternal.

To steal a phrase from Kander and Ebb: maybe this time.

Thank you for listening.

Peter Sklar

 

THE ELECTION & EDUCATION

Along with a majority of American voters, I respect the office of the Presidency, but I did not vote for the person who currently occupies it. It would be much the same with a less than fair and honorable judge; I would respect the legal process and the role of the court, but I might not respect the man who's currently wearing the robes. We can do that. We can do it not only as Americans, but as human beings. We can have any feelings and opinions whatsoever- it is only our behavior we are accountable for. We learn this in the process of becoming educated, especially about history. In studying history, we learn of numerous examples of governments and societies that attempted to regulate what people feel and think. Again, in the process of becoming educated, we learn that all of these governments and societies ultimately failed. Education also provides many lessons of what happens when racism is not only tolerated but institutionalized. We learn that things have historically never ended well for the racists. Education also teaches us that fundamentalism in any belief system, religious, political, or otherwise, is a form of extremism, and that once again, things have historically never ended well for extremists.

So, the common denominator with all of these dynamics, and so many more, is education.  The most educated among us have always been in the forefront of advocating for things like tolerance and respect in our treatment of people who are, in whatever ways, different from us, moderation in our political views, and generally for peace in the pursuit of our national and international goals.

It is therefore perfectly logical that the majority, although certainly not all, of the people who voted for our current president are not college-educated. It is also logical that the same can be said for people who watch and believe Fox News. The real problem is that when a political party has been placed in power via largely uneducated voters, that party would have little incentive to advocate or provide support for higher education. We then would eventually become a society of relatively uneducated voters, unaware of how things like racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and political extremism have historically failed. It is certainly not sad that these unfortunate dynamics always disappear in time- it is tragic that this usually takes place only after a series of bloody confrontations, at home and abroad.

In other words, history teaches us that while the racists and bigots and extremists always lose, they don't go out without a fight.

I have a very good friend who I will call Stacey. I once asked Stacey to try to explain why the majority of college-educated voters always vote more progressive and liberal than their less-educated peers. She thought for a moment, then said: "Because college brainwashes them." I must admit I was momentarily flustered. After some time, I grasped what she was really saying: Knowledge is bad.

I pray that someday, somehow, before it is too late for us as a society, Stacey learns that lack of knowledge is far, far worse.

Until then, please take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

PART IV: WHY EVEN NOW I'M NOT YET A BROADWAY PRODUCER

Please scroll down for Parts I, II, & III

By this time, I was holding regular auditions for new showcase performers, and these included a growing number of talented, but non-credentialed kids. As a result, talent representatives, i.e. agents and managers, began attending our showcases, looking for marketable kids to represent. I formed a good working relationship with several, who eventually would interview in their office literally anyone I recommended. For several years, I acted as a paid scout of sorts, collecting a commission from any jobs these kids booked. Judging from the income I received through those referrals, I'm reasonably certain that a significant number of young performers got their start in the industry as a result of our showcase. While I only recall a handful of those kids, I do remember how wrong I was in my predictions as to which of them would be the most sought after. I also remember being repeatedly surprised at who was.

Eventually, I realized something that astonished me and seemed completely counter-intuitive. It was not the best-looking kids who were getting the most jobs, nor those who acted or sang or danced the best, nor those with the biggest agents or brightest personalities. It was the kids who were simply the most happy and most genuine. For me, this was an entirely new way of viewing commercial marketability. It was also completely consistent with my graduate work at Harvard. I felt as if I had discovered a great truth, and I was eager to share it with my private coaching students, and eventually the world; it completely defined the thrust of the lectures I was to begin giving a few years later.

As long lines formed outside Something Different each weekend, I marveled over the fact that I had been involved in New York's entertainment world for only about six months, yet had managed to create my own little niche. There was only one thing gnawing at me: I knew a great deal about the talent, skills, and careers of the young people I was working with, but very little about who they were personally. Deep down, that's what I was most interested in.

At one of our performances, I was introduced to a child psychologist named Robert Caputo. Robert was then guidance counselor at St. John's Preparatory School in Queens. I was familiar with the group discussion process Michael Bennett had used to develop A Chorus Line a few years earlier. I approached Robert with the idea that this might be used to further two of my goals- learn more about the kids I was working with, and garner ideas for the musical I was still dreaming of creating. He was receptive, and we assembled about a half-dozen high-profile kids from Broadway, films, and TV, (including Sara), who would meet once or twice per week and talk about their lives, families, hobbies, friends, whatever. Robert moderated these discussions, and I recorded them. I remember we had only two rules: one person speaks at a time, and what's said in the group stays in the group. I still have the tapes, although even after thirty-five years, I've never allowed anyone to hear them.

These sessions continued for several weeks, and while it failed to give me any concrete ideas for a show, I did garner a world of information about who these kids were- their feelings, needs, family life, school, relationships, joys, disappointments, and much more. Some of it was heart-breaking, some hilarious, and all fascinating to me; I felt I was being given a highly privileged, insider's view of the lives of young stars. What I began to realize however was that the differences between these kids and all the others I had worked with, while perhaps interesting, were ultimately superficial. Hidden below the surface, I discovered similarities and universals that I marveled at and would ultimately include as topics in my lectures.

I was still earning a living as a musician during this period, and had discovered I particularly enjoyed playing old vocal standards from the thirties and forties. At some point, it occurred to me that the innocent lyrics and simple melodies of that era might form the basis of a unique vocal repertoire for kids. Although the songs themselves were quite simple melodically, I was determined to develop arrangements that were as challenging and sophisticated as possible. I felt this would not only represent an excellent learning experience for the kids, but would be something our showcase audiences would like. Before long, a core group of very talented kids had mastered four-part harmonies, counter-point melodic lines, and even scat-singing in complex arrangements of such classics as Irving Berlin's Shakin' the Blues Away, the Gershwin's I Got Rhythm, Louis Prima's Sing, Sing, Sing, and others. Our performances soon consisted almost entirely of these arrangements, and I re-named the showcase Professional Children's Revue. 

Peter Sklar in 1981 with Lori Loughlin (ABC's Full House) at Comic Strip in New York

Peter Sklar in 1981 with Lori Loughlin
(ABC's Full House) at Comic Strip in
New York

By this time, we had re-located to the small stage of a well-known upper east side comedy club called The Comic Strip. While then-aspiring performers including Eddie Murphy tried out new material on that stage at night, we used it during the afternoon to rehearse and present my arrangements. I remember fumbling an explanation to a curious Gerry Seinfeld one afternoon as to why I was devoting so much time to an endeavor that produced so little income. I'm still not completely sure of what I told him, nor what I would tell him now.

My arrangements alternated with an increasing number of original vocal compositions, all of which had to do, in one way or another, with the experience of being a child in the entertainment field. When my own songs began to receive more audience praise and outnumber the others, I became fascinated with an idea: what if I was able to present a major, commercially-successful musical with a cast consisting entirely of kids? Excited, I announced to the kids and their parents that I was going to raise the money to present our showcase in an Off Broadway theater. Everyone was of course excited, although I had no idea how to produce an Off Broadway show. I simply wanted to. 

Peter Sklar in 1981 with (clockwise from front): Justin Henry (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Sixteen Candles), Jon Ward (TV Pilot: Charles in Charge, Me & Max, Beans Baxter), Liz Ward, Sarah Jessica Parker (Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Footloose, L.A. Story, Sex and the City), Allison Smith (Annie, Kate & Allie, The West Wing)

Peter Sklar in 1981 with (clockwise from
front): Justin Henry (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Sixteen Candles), Jon Ward (TV Pilot: Charles in Charge,
Me & Max, Beans Baxter
), Liz Ward,
Sarah Jessica Parker (Girls Just Want
to Have Fun, Footloose, L.A. Story, Sex and the City
), Allison Smith (Annie, Kate & Allie, The West Wing)

 

 

PART III: WHY I'M NOT YET A BROADWAY PRODUCER...

Please scroll down for Parts I & II

There are many positive things I could say about my graduate school experience, but the most profound was my familiarization with the work of psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers, still alive at the time, had developed what he called client-centered therapy; in brief, this is a technique wherein the listening skills of the counselor lead the patient, or client, to become more aware of her feelings, and eventually accept them, and herself. One of Rogers' books, required reading for my counseling studies, was On Becoming a Person. This book, along with my counseling courses, was to change my life and career, and ultimately the lives of thousands of kids I would work with, in more profound ways than I can possibly describe here.

Following Harvard, I moved back to New York in 1978. The Newton youth center had closed, and I had become intrigued with the idea of working with “professional children”, i.e. the kids who were actually appearing in the Broadway productions of the musicals I had been directing locally. I rented an apartment on lower Madison Avenue in Manhattan, and, while trying to figure out how to meet and work with industry kids, I returned to my usual means of earning a living- playing piano. I had discovered that surviving as a pianist in New York means, in addition to playing in clubs and a bit of studio work, accompanying and coaching singers. My musical theater experience had provided me with an extensive repertoire of vocal material, and largely through word of mouth, I developed a more than decent-sized practice of weekly private vocal coaching students. Even as the rest of my life unfolded, I continued working as a pianist and coach for the next twenty years.

One of the places I had applied for piano work was an intimate, upper east side restaurant that served only desserts. It was called Something Different, and had a small stage on which the waiters would take turns singing in between serving tables. Although the place wasn’t looking for a pianist at the time, I had an idea. I asked the owner how she felt about having some of my younger vocal students perform songs for her customers in a showcase on the weekends. My proposal was that I would audition and select the kids, choose and arrange the songs, be the accompanist for the showcase, open it to the public on weekend afternoons, and we’d evenly divide whatever income the show attracted. She agreed.

Soon after, I learned of a west side restaurant and bar called Beefsteak Charlie’s. It was said that this was where the kid casts of various Broadway shows would go with their parents to unwind after performances. One evening, hoping we might meet some of these kids and convince their parents to allow them to perform in our showcase, the owner of Something Different and I paid a visit. Sure enough, while listening to a very young Nathan Lane performing cabaret-style, we met a sweet woman who was there with her daughter,11-year-old Laura Dunn, one of the orphans in Broadway’s Annie. I was thrilled with the prospect of having Laura sing in my fledgling showcase, and even more so when her mother not only agreed, but surprised me by behaving as the antithesis of a stage mother; she volunteered to ask other members of Annie's children’s cast if they were interested as well.

Within a month, I had lined up all of the "orphans", including the star at the time, Allison Smith, who I auditioned backstage at the Alvin Theater, (subsequently re-named the Neil Simon). Soon, I had auditioned, and gladly accepted, all of the "Lost Boys" in Broadway's Peter Pan, starring Sandy Duncan, the full children's chorus of Evita, starring Patti Lupone, as well as kids from several other hit musicals of the day. Our showcase additionally attracted former cast members of some of these shows, including a teenage Sara Jessica Parker who preceded Miss Smith in the starring role of Annie. Bright, funny, perceptive, open, and always real, Sara quickly became one of my favorite kids. Many years later, I would lecture about how those qualities explained her eventual success.

Cover STORY, NY TIMES ARTS & LEISURE SECTION

Cover STORY, NY TIMES ARTS & LEISURE SECTION

I sent a release about the showcase to all the major newspapers and television stations. I was amazed that the first to respond was the much revered New York Times; a reporter covered one of our performances, and interviewed me at some length. This resulted in an article which appeared on that weekend's cover page of the Times' Arts and Leisure section. More newspaper and television coverage followed, until one afternoon I received a call from David Powers, Annie's official publicist. All I remember from the conversation was him declaring, not unhappily, that I was getting more attention for his show than he was. Our audiences began to include celebrities. Among others, I remember speaking briefly with Brooke Shields and her mother, Teri, following one of our performances.

One afternoon, I learned that Martin Charnin, Annie's director and lyricist, was planning to attend. This was due to the fact that in addition to working with the children in his Broadway cast, his own daughter, Sasha, herself a gifted performer, had been appearing in our showcase.

Martin's impending visit terrified me. I knew that if for any reason he didn't like what he saw and heard, we'd lose the Annie kids in a heartbeat, and probably most of our others. To my relief, he was all smiles from start to finish. At the end, he approached me and said: "Wonderful job." The praise was apparently sincere; a few days later, he called and asked me if I would create a musical arrangement of the Cole Porter standard, I Happen to Like New York, for a presentation he was directing for the New York Press Club. I did, and after the performance, he said: "Terrific arrangement." I was obviously thrilled.

ACCOMPANYING SASHA CHARNIN

ACCOMPANYING SASHA CHARNIN

Ironically, the second person of such stature to compliment me during that period was Martin's collaborator on Annie, who also happened to be the composer of Bye, Bye, Birdie, Charles Strouse. Charles' son, Nicholas, had been performing in my showcase, and I learned that Charles was conducting a song-writing workshop at the 92nd Street YMHA. I had begun writing some songs depicting the lives of kids in the industry, and one of these was inspired by the experiences of Annie's star, Allison Smith, who I had been working with. I knew Charles would appreciate the subject matter, since it had to do with his show, but I didn't know how he'd respond to the song-writing itself. Bravely, I signed up for his class, and when it came my turn to play something, I stopped and said: "I'm not really a song-writer, but I thought you might find this interesting." I played the song, and he responded: "You're wrong. You are a song writer." After that moment, I began to write in earnest.

NEXT MONTH: FIRST THOUGHTS OF BROADWAY

 

Exploiting a Former Career Just for Fun: One-Minute Piano Lessons

After Juilliard and forty-plus years as a professional musician, I came up with an idea. Why not distill some of that experience (and love) into simple, short instructional sound-bytes? Seems perfect for this day and age. Plus I enjoy sharing stuff. Hopefully interesting to beginning/intermediate keyboard aspirants.

Here's just one for now, and I'll be adding more. Feedback always welcome.

PART II: WHY I'M (Still) NOT A BROADWAY PRODUCER...

(Please scroll down for Part I)

Marilyn and I set up house together in my home town of New Rochelle, New York, and were eventually married. The relationship lasted just over two years, before my own preoccupation with building a career, coupled with more than a little immaturity on my part, resulted in a separation and ultimate divorce. This was a dynamic I would see repeated hundreds of times, without exception, with young people throughout my career. It's complete predictability led to one of my firm dictums to aspiring actors: careers and relationships do not work with young people.

Marilyn had moved to Massachusetts, and about a year after the divorce, perhaps subconsciously following her, I moved there as well. I settled in the Boston suburb of Newton Corner, where I discovered a teen youth center called Beginnings, held in the basement of the Elliot Church of Newton. It was directed by a deeply caring individual named Fred Rosene. Fred eventually wrote a book about that place entitled Making a Difference, which I was pleased to learn includes a great deal about my own work there. Most of the kids at Beginnings had problems with school, home, and the courts, and were not welcome at many places about town. This made the center a social oasis for them. More than thirty years later, I can still hear the pounding of their fists on the large wooden outside door every day just before four o'clock pm, which is when the center opened.

There was absolutely nothing in my own background that suggested any sort of affinity with these kids. They were tough, physical, street-wise, and had as much use for theater as I have for a pair of nunchucks. But the place had a stage, and believing I had little else to offer, I was stubbornly determined to get those kids into some sort of musical production. West Side Story seemed a perfect choice. Volunteering my time, I started by persuading the most influential kids to join, and soon had a full cast of Jets and Sharks, along with Tony, Maria, and the others. The production opened to a clearly impressed audience of parents, community members, and church people. To this day, I am convinced we had the most realistic gang fights ever staged in the history of theater.

Fred Rosene and Peter Sklar, Beginnings Youth Center, 1975

Fred Rosene and Peter Sklar, Beginnings Youth Center, 1975

West Side Story was followed by a series of other productions, including an original, albeit primitive musical of my own which I adapted from S.E. Hinton’s famous novel, The Outsiders. Given the kids I was working with, its gang clashes made it a logical choice. Our success enabled the center to attract funding for my fledgling theater program, and I recall eventually being handed a check for $97 weekly for working more than 80 hours. It was the first money I ever received for working with kids. As much as I appreciated and needed it, however, I would have continued working with these kids for free. It was enough back then for me to believe I was one of the few adults in their lives who could command their respect without representing any sort of physical challenge to them. I was even more proud of the fact that I was probably one of the few adults on the planet who, without offering them money or fame, could persuade them to sing, dance, and act in front of an audience.

I supplemented my meager Beginnings income by playing piano in a number of Boston restaurants, but realized I was becoming less and less interested in a career as a musician. I was instead increasingly fascinated by the prospect of using the arts as a vehicle to reach, well, unreachable kids. I was soon directing similar programs, with similar kids, in the Boston working-class suburbs of Cambridge and Dorchester.

Around this time, I was introduced to a summer camp director named Ray Diamond who invited me to be the Theater and Music Counselor at his private camp in the Catskills region of New York State, Camp Lokanda. The job paid well, and it was fun. I spent five summers there, 1973 – 1978, taking a seasonal break each year from my work with Massachusetts kids, somehow managing to stage and musically direct a different full- length musical production every week. The grueling schedule notwithstanding, it was an invaluable experience in two respects:

1. I learned more about the structure of the libretto, script, and musical score of Broadway musicals those summers than at any time before or since.

2. Although the kids at the camp were from ostensibly stable, well-to-do families, I began to sense that many of them had emotional issues that ran deeper, and were more serious, than those of the “problem” kids I was working with in Massachusetts.

Recently, I was saddened to learn of Ray’s passing. What I remember most from the theatrical crash course he had provided me, was the budding realization that I wanted to write and produce a musical of my own- one that would make a meaningful statement about kids.

My increased interest in theater, along with pressure from my parents to continue college, led me to enroll at the University of Massachusetts’ Dorchester campus, with a double major in theater and psychology. This, too, lasted only two years which I attribute partially to the fact that, probably based more on arrogance than truth, I felt I wasn’t learning much more than I had already taught myself directing community and camp theater for the past several years. Again, I dropped out of college, but not before managing to direct and mount a full-scale, public, totally illegal school production of Grease, which was playing on Broadway at the time. The show ran two nights. We had full houses and made about $2,000 at the box office, which I was told was unprecedented. I donated all of the money to one of the youth centers I had been working at.

A few weeks later, I received a terse letter from Tams Witmark Publishing Company’s legal department asking who it was that had granted me permission to produce their property. They additionally demanded a formal accounting of the box office receipts. I responded by sending the attorneys as sincere-sounding a letter of apology as I could manage, hand-written with a pencil on wrinkled, torn yellow notebook paper, saying basically that I didn't realize I needed permission to do the show, since I was simply trying to raise money for underprivileged kids. I never heard from them again.

Rightly or wrongly, that experience is one of many in my life that led to another of my dictums to young people: whatever it is, if it doesn't hurt you and doesn't hurt anyone else, and doesn't get you into big trouble, do it.

In 1976, the daughter of a friend of my father happened to ask me to help her apply to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Given my own dismal undergraduate history, I have no idea why she sought my assistance, except that she might have somehow known I did some occasional writing. In the process of editing her application forms, I was surprised to hear her suggest I submit an application myself. I pointed out that I didn’t have an undergraduate degree. She informed me that Harvard would occasionally admit a student to its graduate schools on the basis of life experience. Intrigued by this, and imagining the prestige of a Harvard graduate degree, I familiarized myself with the Graduate School of Education curriculum, and applied, having compiled numerous pages of notes, documentation, and letters of recommendation from anyone I could think of. I also included some local newspaper coverage I had received in connection with my work with the kids of Boston and New York. My cover letter of sorts was a long essay about how I would apply my graduate coursework to furthering my effectiveness in using the arts as a vehicle to help “problem” kids.

The young lady I had assisted was not accepted. I was.

A few weeks after my submission, I was excited to receive a letter asking me to visit the school and meet with a member of the Admissions Committee. I don’t recall anything specific about the interview, other than the fact that the woman I met with seemed warm and friendly, and was a good listener. I do remember leaving the room believing I had presented myself effectively, and apparently this was true. Another few weeks went by, and I received a letter with an official notice stating that I had been formally accepted to the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a candidate for a Masters degree in Education. Currently, that notice is framed and hanging on my living room wall, right next to the only degree I ever completed: an Ed. M. from Harvard University in 1978.

And... the long road to Broadway continues next month.

Until then, take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

PART I: WHY I'M NOT A BROADWAY PRODUCER... (Yet)

A couple of funny things happened on the way to producing a show called The Kid Who Played the Palace. Most of it took place after someone told me that the average gestation period of a Broadway musical, from initial idea through opening, is eight years. I was in my twenties, and I scoffed; I knew in my heart that my production would be up and running in far less time. What happened instead might have been best explained by John Lennon: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

Looking back, eight years would have been cause for celebration. To quote from a project that took a mere two years, let's start from the very beginning...

On April 3, 1949, I was born into an upper-middle class suburban family with solid roots in both music and public school teaching. My parents were educators; dad was principal of P.S. 68 in New York City, and mom taught special needs students at Bellevue Hospital’s on-site school. Although not professional musicians themselves, they managed to raise three children who were. I was their first child. My brother, Paul, two years younger, initially an accomplished oboe and clarinet player, would become a piano accompanist for many of the major dance companies in New York, and eventually direct piano-based music classes with children in Seattle, while my sister, Pam, four years younger, is an internationally-acclaimed flutist whose credits include an eclectic variety of film soundtracks, popular CDs, and commercials.

My uncle, George Rabin, who I remember quite well, was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; his son, my cousin, Michael Rabin, has been widely hailed as one of the greatest violin virtuosos of all time. I remember seeing him in concert numerous times, and playing catch with him in my backyard when I was 13. On one of those occasions, I took a photo of him which I still have.

              Michael Rabin

              Michael Rabin

In an apparent effort to have me follow in Michaels’ footsteps, my mother arranged for me to begin formal piano lessons at age five. I apparently had some potential, since at age 12, I was awarded a scholarship to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, where I studied piano and music theory for the next several years. My classical training was supplemented by my parent’s love of Broadway. While attending Juilliard, I recall seeing such original classics as The Sound of Music, Music Man, and many others.

I had no idea that this would eventually have a greater impact on my future than the piano ever would.

My father would always purchase the 33 rpm album at the theater, and he’d play the songs on our Victrola when we got home. That's become a bit of a tradition for me; to this day, despite it being less expensive online, I purchase the CD of every Broadway show I attend at the theater, directly following the performance.

When the Beatles appeared, I took my first foray into popular music, learning dozens of songs on the radio by ear. In my late teens, I formed a prototype 60’s rock band we called The Renegades. I sang lead and played keyboard. Our crowning achievement, apart from doing quite well in a few county-wide battles of the bands, was opening a concert for the Hollies, the group Graham Nash formed prior to Crosby Stills, and Nash. The Hollies were known for such hits as Bus Stop, Just One Look, The Air That I Breathe, and others, some of which I remember hearing the group perform as I sat backstage after our set.

Me (left) with The Renegades, 1967

Me (left) with The Renegades, 1967

Realizing our little amateur group, and several others I knew, actually had better-trained musicians, I remember wondering what it was exactly that made groups like the Hollies so popular. This was a mystery that would irritate me and remain unsolved until well after my career as a musician.

My rock years were followed by a discovery of jazz, blues, and older standards, and I began playing professionally in local restaurants and clubs throughout New York City. I also did a bit of studio work. My classical technique led to a nickname given to me by several of the contractors and sound engineers: “the guy with all the notes”. My first recording job was an ironic throw-back to my classical years- I was hired to play Mozart’s famous piano sonata in C as background music for, of all things, a Taster’s Choice coffee commercial. I remember the awe I felt the first time I heard it on the radio. I also remember very clearly wondering what Mozart would have thought.

I had been out of high school for a year, playing piano and spending all my free time with an irresistibly beautiful girl named Brenda, when, in 1969, at age 20, my mother convinced me I should attend college. My brother, Paul, and I were both accepted at the University of Hartford; Paul enrolled in the university’s Hartt College of Music. I still loved music intensely, but my interest in further classical training had waned, and, undoubtedly influenced by my parents’ careers, I decided to study teaching. I entered the School of Education, stayed for two years, and hated it. I did however write prolifically for the school paper, the UH News, attacking racism, the War in Vietnam, the school’s corporate board of directors, and other 60's issues. I feel compelled to mention here that for better or worse, I remember feeling more intellectually challenged and moved by the life and speeches of Malcolm X in a discussion group several of my fellow students and I formed on our own, than anything I learned in my classes. The inevitable happened: I dropped out, but not before falling in love with an exciting and talented fellow student, an aspiring artist named Marilyn Dowling.

And... the long road to Broadway continues next month.

Until then, take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

A Very Special Session with King George III of Broadway's Hamilton

Just heard from Rory O'Malley, currently reigning alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda as King George III in Broadway's hit musical phenomenon Hamilton. Rory has confirmed that he'll conduct a special intensive exclusively for Beginnings students this August, focusing on the entire process of auditioning for Broadway.

Our students will have an insider's firsthand description of performance realities that only performers with Rory's experience know well- casting, interviews, auditions, callbacks, agents, unions, and more, as well as a question and answer session. Students will be able to interact directly with Rory, ask him questions about his experience with Hamilton and Book of Mormon, as well as the industry in general, take lots of photos, and record the entire session for reviewing and consulting after the workshop.

Hamilton is Rory's second major role in a Broadway hit, having been nominated for a Tony Award for starring as Elder McKinley in Book of Mormon. He's appeared in the film Dreamgirls, and more recently starred alongside Kelsey Grammar and Martin Lawrence in FX's Partners. He's additionally appeared on TV episodes of Nurse Jackie, The Good Wife, Law and Order: SVU, and 1600 Penn.

Visit www.roryomalley.com for more details.

Should be an exciting session!

Sugar: Not So Sweet

The damage caused to your body and mind by sugar and sugared products would fill a hundred Internet sites, and probably does. Many kids and parents know the usual downsides: hyperactivity, mood swings, insomnia, anxiety attacks, nervous system dysfunction, dental caries, heart complications, blood sugar issues/diabetes, adrenal exhaustion, interference with digestion, oxidative stress affecting virtually all living tissue, yeast infections, and more.

What most people don’t know is that for many serious diseases to advance in the body, most notably cancer and a variety of serious infections, the blood must be in something called an acidic PH state. Research shows that when the blood is kept in a balanced PH state, many disease processes are often arrested, either partially or entirely.

I don’t pretend to understand the reasons for this, but I do know that few things in the world acidify the blood more thoroughly, and for longer periods of time after consumption, than sugar. (Equally acidifying are alcohol, meat, dairy, cigarette smoke, and stress… the last of which I’ll discuss in a future piece.) 

And it gets worse. Companies often list sugar under other names, probably to disguise its presence. Most common examples:

  • corn syrup
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • lactose
  • maltose
  • maltodextrin
  • sucrose
  • rice syrup.

 

Moral of the story? Take charge of your taste buds. "Teach" them that there are complexities and subtleties to the flavor of foods that, if you give yourself a chance, you'll find much more enjoyable and satisfying than routinely giving in to momentary, destructive cravings.

Do I eat sugar? Yes, as an occasional treat. Which is exactly what sugar should be- not something you eat for breakfast!

Until next time, take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

The Complete Tessa Netting: Billy, Harry, Walt & Beyond

Every so often, I have the immense satisfaction of watching a deserving former student blossom from great creative talent into huge professional success. From Broadway's Billy Elliot, to Disney's Bunk'd, to near-super-star status on YouTube, (and her fascinating articulation of the personal values inherent in the iconic Harry Potter series), Tessa Netting is just getting started. This interview captures a fascinating moment in time. It enables us to watch a gifted stage and screen actress evolving toward a future as a major, uniquely notable writer and director. In this entertaining interview, you'll observe Tessa openly sharing her life, her loves, and some of the most essential elements of success.  Enjoy!

The Many Hats of Dr. Kevin Kolack, Ph. D.

College professor, firefighter, emergency medical technician, taxi driver, youth worker, film and television actor, and and now a parent, Dr. Kolack has almost literally done it all. With wisdom and compassion, this Renaissance man speaks openly about the inner forces- some might say demons- that drove him to become a consummate over-achiever... resulting in a myriad of accomplishments, and more than a few regrets along the way.

Four High School Graduates On the Path Less Traveled

INTERNS.jpg

Sofia, Micah, Caroline, and Patti are four young high school graduates who are overcoming fears of the unknown, objections from parents and friends, and sacrificing the security of home, as they set forth on a journey unthinkable by most of their peers.

Working for a year as interns for a New York lecturer, (yours truly), the four discuss how and why they're managing abrupt changes in lifestyle, separation from boyfriends, distance from their families, and the surprising results.

Health Stuff

I'm not a doctor or nutritionist.

But I do read a lot. In doing so, I've discovered certain facts that thousands of doctors and researchers all agree upon.

This is despite the advertising, conventional wisdom, and pharmaceutical-sponsored "news" articles you may have seen to the contrary. Their findings explain why many, if not most, of the thousands of young performers I've known are...

  • underweight, (that’s right- underweight!)
  • chronically lacking energy
  • often sick with colds and coughs
  • suffering from acne, allergies, headaches, digestive disturbances, mood swings, anxiety, chronic stress, and a variety of other symptoms of emotional and nutritional imbalance.

How is this related to your career? Any career?

I'm assuming two things about feeling and looking unhealthy:

  • You don't like it.
  • You don't perform as well- artistically, academically, or even socially.

In hopes that you'll welcome some easy-to-read, well-documented health advice, I offer you this little column which will serve either as an occasional sidebar, or as the main blog entry, depending on my schedule each month. Slowly and steadily start doing as much of this as you can, and you’ll...

  • look better
  • feel better
  • think better
  • become a better performer- in any field.

Promise.

In fact, it's my firm conviction that your career will take a surprising and permanent leap, (dancers: pun intended), forward.

Until next time, take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar