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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.
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.