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 summer and fall, 2017, 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 fall, 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

 

 

Kids, Careers, & Romance

"Whenever a young person between the ages of 16 and 25 gives up pursuing a dream, any dream, there's always a boyfriend or girlfriend involved. Always. Without exception. And later, either the relationship breaks up or the career never happens. Always. Without exception. And no young person who's ever in a serious romantic relationship will believe this applies to him or her. Ever. Without exception."

 

 

I wrote those words more than two decades ago. The sole difference now is that I can explain myself a bit better. 

For one thing, I've discovered an interesting irony.

When a young person is in a serious and positive romantic relationship, they have a powerful support system. 

They have someone who...

  • cares for them  
  • keeps them from feeling alone 
  • provides them with comfort, satisfaction, even joy. 

The irony? These dynamics are at the very root of the problem. And NOT because the relationship is a "distraction", or "takes up too much time", or that one partner may consciously or unconsciously hold the other back, or something like that.

It's human nature. 

In our teens and early twenties, we human beings have only recently entered what noted psychologist Jean Piaget calls "formal operational thought". In a nutshell, one of the central characteristics of this level of thinking is the ability to objectively assess the consequences of one's actions. 

I would express it as follows:

Although teens and young adults now have the same cognitive equipment as adults, they're new at using it.

In other words, it's not about grasping the concept of actions and consequences; it's about having the experience to know what it feels like

Further, many if not most psychologists believe that in adolescence, there is a resurgence of what another famous psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, (my advisor at Harvard), describes as "Level 1" or "pre-conventional" morality, indicative of childhood. 

Simply put, this would go a long way toward explaining why so many teens, and even young adults, seem to base much of their behavior solely on what feels good at the moment.

So here's a question:

When a teenager or young adult finds something that meets most of their emotional and physical needs, is it realistic to expect that they would devote lots of time and energy pursuing something else instead?

Before you answer, imagine if this "something else" were to entail...

  • constant difficulty
  • disappointment
  • sacrifice
  • rejection

As you may guess, I'm describing the path to success in most fields, and especially the arts.

How long would a young person continue this necessarily huge expenditure of time and energy, given a readily-available, easy, comfortable, and gratifying alternative such as a romantic relationship?   

Perhaps at this point you're thinking that a serious romantic partner would be a vital, supportive element for a young person in such a pursuit. Perhaps you believe that such a partner would help guide them along the way, provide encouragement- even inspiration- and help prevent them from giving up on their dreams.   

Maybe. But that simply hasn't been my experience. 

Do I believe this applies to all romantic relationships? Of course not. 

I've seen many careers and relationships work extremely well together...  when both partners have first become fully and separately mature as individuals

Until next time, take good care of yourself. 

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

Tracy Jai Edwards: Her Remarkable Journey to the Great White Way

In her featured roles in Broadway's Hairspray and Legally Blonde, and soon to be appearing alongside Stefanie Powers and Andre De Shields in the much-touted Gotta Dance, Tracy Jai Edwards is the embodiment of qualities necessary for success in any field.

But that wasn't always so.

Tracy is my former student.  I was fortunate to discover this brilliantly talented young lady years ago while lecturing in Houston. In this candid interview, she describes her struggle and victory over fear, self-doubt, and the discouragement of others, and outlines the steps she took in her personal and professional life which led to her smashing success as one of the most remarkable triple-threats in the world of Broadway.

Life Lessons from Showbiz

According to Actors Equity Association, 90% of the best Broadway performers in America are chronically unemployed. 

I suspect the figures for television and film actors are even worse. This, despite that there are enough job opportunities out there to consistently employ far more. Obviously it means the same actors are getting most of the gigs.

What explains this?

Talent?
Training?
Looks?
Luck?
Perseverance?
Passion?
Connections? 

Do the performers who work regularly have better resumes, headshots, social media skills, and all the other things people commonly associate with the "biz"?

The truth is that every one of these things is fundamentally minor or irrelevant... in any field.  They are equally common among those who fail as among those who succeed.

So what is it? 

I created this blog for students, parents, and educators- in and out of the arts. 

It's to share what I've distilled from a half century of experience with young people. For the most part, this includes kids who, from all outward appearances, were more accomplished and successful than most of their peers. 

Other than a few hundred young Broadway and TV stars, who were they?

These were kids who excelled in the following:

  • Academics
  • Athletics
  • Gymnastics
  • Dance
  • Forensics
  • Technology
  • Science

... and lots of other things. 

Here's what I observed without exception:

Those who came to feel good about themselves and learned to take good care of themselves, embraced the kinds of choices and habits that led to success. 

In other words, in every case, it was not what these children and teens accomplished that impacted most on their futures- it was who they were

That's what I call the "Sklar Principle".

I believe that as educators, our effectiveness- indeed our primary mission-  lies in understanding and communicating this to our students. 

Perhaps you'll join me here in that effort each month. It should be an exciting, illuminating, life-changing journey.

Until next time, take good care of yourself.

Thanks.

Peter Sklar

WHAT'S YOUR REAL?

There's a false but widely held belief in the entertainment field, on Wall Street, in corporate board rooms, even in our schools:

Everyone's #1 priority is to find something "new", i.e. "the next big thing."

After a career that's spanned a half century, I've found that virtually every product developer, investment banker, internet tycoon, and CEO, along with every casting director and agent I've ever known from New York to Hollywood, is always searching for something far more important.

While few are able to describe just what that is, they will all assure you they'll recognize it the moment they see it. And I believe them.

I'm referring to something real.

As I write this, millions of smart, talented, hard-working, well-connected, and outwardly accomplished people in all walks of life, both children and adults, are struggling for success, unaware that their dreams and goals are tied far more intimately to who they are, rather than what they can do.

This blog is to encourage administrators, teachers, students, and aspiring performers to ask: who are you, really? 

Are you happy?
Are you taking good care of yourself?
Are you honest and fair?
Are you disciplined and mature?

That's your real.

And you can't fake it, or turn it on and off, or put it together quickly before a big day or for an important interview. It's who and what you really are- the basis for success at home, in school, on the job, and in life.

What's your real?