It’s a slogan but a true one: the arts can bring people together. For evidence look no further than this past Saturday’s matinee of My Fair Lady. Forty-four people in that audience were there because a production of the musical had occurred 41 years previously, during a high school summer theater festival in West Nyack, New York, a 45-minute drive up river from Manhattan.
Laura Weinger Housley, a member of that earlier ensemble, had helped organize the group, which included 14 alumni of the production plus 30 individuals with a family or friend connection. A few days before the Saturday matinee, Housley provided some background.
“Until 1971, there was only one high school in West Nyack, but the area had grown enough so a new school was started. Clarkstown North, the old school, and Clarkstown South, where I went, were friendly rivals in sports but we came together in the summer for a theater festival.”
Each production would typically have six weeks rehearsal and six performances, over two weekends in August. “The auditorium where we performed,” Housley said, “at the time had no air-conditioning. We projected and we sweated. We didn’t mind suffering for our craft. We had such a good time.”
Among the 1977 My Fair Lady cast, playing Pickering, was Philip Rosenthal, who went on to create the smash 1990s TV series “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Housley has been in contact with Rosenthal over the years – his parents still live in the Clarkstown area – but Rosenthal was not the main attraction this past weekend. That would be Adam Grupper, who is in the ensemble of LCT’s My Fair Lady.
Grupper is a veteran of 12 Broadway shows and Housley has organized groups to see him in The Addams Family and Fiddler on the Roof. But My Fair Lady was the first occasion in which he would be professionally in a musical he did as a student in the high-school festival.
“When I see Adam perform now,” Housley said, “I’m a little overwhelmed. I think: ‘You done good, kid.’ He’s so humble and modest. As a high-school student, he was shy and he really blossomed when he was on that stage.”
Grupper, who played Alfred P. Doolittle in that high-school production and has gone on recently as Doolittle at LCT, remembered: “It’s true that I was shy in high school. But theater gave me a chance to be someone else.”
He had done theater before My Fair Lady – Anything Goes, for example – but Doolittle was the first time he got to use a “foreign” accent. “It was a chance to channel my inner Stanley Holloway and cut loose.”
Holloway had been the original Doolittle on Broadway. There was a more direct connection for Housley and Grupper to that production. “Jeremy Brown,” Grupper said, “was our director, and she had been in the ensemble of the original My Fair Lady. She said that a lot of the things she incorporated into our production were things she remembered from the original staging.” Brown traveled down from her home on Cape Cod to attend the LCT outing.
Grupper said that once he leaves a production he tends to forget everything. “But,” he said, “that hasn’t been the case with My Fair Lady. When I’ve played Doolittle at Lincoln Center Theater, there are things I remember from 40 years ago – little inflections.”
Thanks to Facebook and to the organizing skills of Housley, memories of high-school years have remained fresh. “I don’t live in the past, but doing theater in high school was a very happy time in my life,” Housley said.
Grupper added; “Not long ago, one of the people from our high-school days got me an audio recording of that 1977 My Fair Lady. About a month ago, I listened to it. In one sense, it’s excruciating to listen to yourself at the age of 15. In another, however, it’s touching to hear the voice of this kid who was having the time of his life.”
According to Housley, the group attending My Fair Lady at LCT also had a terrific time. A day after the outing, she sent me what she had posted on a “High School Friends of Adam Grupper” page on Facebook. Here is an excerpt: “Yesterday was a memorable, priceless day. I’m still on a high from seeing friends, an incredible production of My Fair Lady and our own Adam Grupper making it such a personal experience for all of us.”
Housley added: “The most surprising part of the day was when the show ended and Adam came downstage to make the announcement about the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraiser. But he began by saying that ‘the 1977 Summer Theatre Festival alumni are here, including the director, who was in the original production of My Fair Lady on Broadway! We were all very touched by it, especially Jeremy. The trip to New York from Cape Cod was certainly worth it for her!”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com