It was 20 years ago today

and it wasn’t Sgt. Pepper teaching the band to play, but Prof. Harold Hill.

Sometime during the week before February 27, 2001, I was leafing through the Port Huron Times Herald and saw that a local community theater group was going to hold auditions for The Music Man, one of my favorite musicals.

I did a little bit of theater in high school, then took a few classes in college as I considered possibly majoring in theater at Central Michigan University. I worked on set construction for one production and helped with the front of house (tickets, ushering, etc.) for another before moving on to my next possible major (I signed up for seven majors, which is a story of its own, I suppose).

So I hadn’t really acted on stage ever. I thought it would be fun to just be in the chorus, or maybe part of the barbershop quartet. I figured if you were going to do a play, you probably already had people in mind for the major parts. That turned out to be both true (directors almost always have some idea who they’d like to cast, assuming they come out to audition) and false (sometimes the preconceived actors don’t show or, even better, someone else does who changes the director’s mind).

I had mentioned auditioning for shows before, several times, in fact. My wife, Doreen, had had enough. “If you don’t audition for The Music Man,” she said, “I don’t want to ever hear you say you ‘oughta’ audition for another show, ever.” The gauntlet had been laid down. It was time to put up or shut up.

Even then, I enlisted my 11-year-old daughter, Erin, to come along with me. Sort of a human shield, I guess. Maybe if they liked the cute kid they’d put her old man in the show, too. She was a good sport and agreed to audition with me.

We did the typical community theater audition things: a little reading, a little dancing, and a lot of singing. The director, Sue Daniels, had years of experience directing musicals and swiftly moved everyone through the paces. Not knowing what to expect, I was pretty impressed with how she handled everyone. There was no awkwardness for being “new,” and Erin and I were greeted warmly by everyone. It was fun.

I noticed after about an hour that there weren’t any men who would of a typical age for Harold Hill. I was 38 at the time and wondered if I was too old to play the part, but every other guy there was either a teenager or at least 15 years older than me. I began to let myself think I might have a shot at the lead, but again reminded myself that surely they had someone in mind and perhaps he’d been at the auditions on the previous night.

When we got to the singing part of the auditions, I thought I did pretty well. I knew the music already so I was confident. “Ya Got Trouble” is a tough piece and we didn’t sing much of it, but I felt good about how I did. We also did Harold’s reprise of “Til There Was You,” which gave me a chance to show my full range.

Erin and I went home and we both thought we’d done well enough to be cast in the chorus and even discussed how much fun it would be to get to do that together. I got home at about 9 p.m. and was reading a book in my home office when the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said.

“Can I speak to Tom Kephart,” the caller replied. “This is Russell Kaleikilo, president of the St. Clair Theatre Guild.”

“This is Tom,” I answered.

“Ah, Tom, good,” Russell went on. He’d been one of the members of the audition panel. “We enjoyed your work tonight and wondered if you’d be interested in playing Professor Harold Hill.”

I dropped the telephone.

Picking it up and doing the classic tangled-cord-trying-to-talk-in-the-wrong-end routine, I finally got it straightened out and apologized to Russell for dropping him on the floor.

“Yes, I’d love to,” I said.

Russell laughed and told me when the read-through would be. Then he asked if Erin was available. She had come into the office so I handed the phone to her. Russell asked if she’d like to be a “Town Kid” in the show, and she also answered yes.

And that’s how I ended up playing Prof. Harold Hill in the first show I ever auditioned for. It was a life-changing moment, one I’ve relived over and over because it set the stage (pun intended) for the best twenty years of my life. That opportunity led to 57 more shows since The Music Man, both as an actor and as a director. My experience allowed me to teach acting and improvisation at a community college for eight years and direct four shows a year there. I met almost all of my close friends through theater. It gave me a purpose I didn’t really have before.

And it all started twenty years ago tonight. Thanks to Sue Daniels, Jean Bastian, the late Russell Kaleikilo, and the entire cast and crew of SCTG’s 2001 production of The Music Man for believing in me that night in February.

Open to interpretation

I used to teach acting at a community college. The department where I taught was called “visual and performing arts.” The performing arts were vocal and instrumental music, dance, and theater.

While “performing arts” is no doubt an accurate description of what happens when the artist is in front of an audience, I prefer to think of them as “interpretive arts.” I like that term because music and theater performances require a two-step creative process. This is different from photography, illustration, painting, sculpture, and other visual arts, which involve a single artist producing a finished work based on a concept or idea they have devised themselves. There’s seldom a team involved in creating a work of visual art.

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Going back to a (virtual) stage

Nearly all live theater companies and groups have been idle since the world shut down for the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, like everything else, theater artists assumed they would have to postpone or cancel a production or two, but then things would slowly get back to normal.

Eight months later, many groups are still wondering when, if ever, that “normal” is coming. Restrictions on the number of people who can attend a public event are very low in most states, making the economics of a full-blown stage production difficult.

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Leaving Anatevka

The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)
The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)

Fiddler on the Roof closed last night after a three night run. It was community theatre at its best. Everything came together beautifully: the acting, the singing, the orchestra, the tech. Around 900 people saw the show and were generous in their praise of the production.

For me, it was a dream come true. Finding myself in Tevye’s boots on stage was as wonderful as I imagined it would be. So many moments will last in my memory: the opening number, “Tradition”; talking to Lazar Wolf (John Klecha) about selling my “new milk cow” and then launching into “To Life”; allowing Tzeitel (Elizabeth Wentzel) to talk me out of my agreement with Lazar so she can marry Motel; “Do You Love Me” with Golde (Christy Kreidler); listening to Hodel (Ciara Adams) sing my favorite song in the show, “Far From The Home I Love,” to me and then both of us crying real tears as the scene ends; denying Chava (Tyler Nevison) after she marries outside of the faith (more tears); and, of course, “If I Were I Rich Man,” a show-stopping solo number if there ever was one.

Obviously, I’m leaving plenty of names out here. Our entire cast and crew worked very hard, for nothing but the love of theatre, to make Fiddler a success. Thank you to all of you for your dedication. It was a privilege to be your Tevye. And special thanks to Sue Daniels, who directed me in my first show in 2001 (The Music Man as Harold Hill) and launched my life in a different direction, one that has provided years of fun, laughs and challenges.

I know some professional actors and directors who make fun of community groups for “trying to do theatre” (despite many of them getting their start with similar groups). I reject that type of snobbery. Every community deserves art, including theatre art, and everyone should be encouraged to participate. Acting jobs that actually pay a living wage are rarer than hen’s teeth. So bravo to those community theatre groups like the St. Clair Theatre Guild that work diligently to bring art to their communities and provide the opportunity for their members to express themselves artistically (while also having a lot of fun!).

As the good book says: “So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people to do in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

L’chaim!  

Adventures with Tevye

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a legendary character. He has many noble qualities: he works hard, he’s loyal to his family and his community, and he has a deep respect for knowledge and scholarship. When faced with a series of crises in his life, he reacts with wisdom and courage. He’s a good man. I like him; he’s a little crazy, but I like him.

I’m playing Tevye the Dairyman in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof with the St. Clair Theatre Guild. It’s a role I’ve wanted to play at least since high school, and probably earlier, because I know I’ve been listening to the music since I was seven or eight. The music is wonderful, haunting and beautiful, and it’s a joy to get to sing the songs even in rehearsal.

I saw an interview with Harvey Fierstein (whose birthday is today), who played Tevye on Broadway a few years ago. I’ve heard Tevye described as an “everyman,” an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. Fierstein disagreed with this, arguing that if Tevye were merely an ordinary man, he wouldn’t have had the strength and ability to react and change as his traditions were challenged by his daughters and by the world around him. I agree. And it makes theatrical sense as well, because we don’t go to the theatre to watch ordinary people do ordinary things, but rather to experience the lives of amazing individuals in larger-than-life situations.

Tevye is a devout man, but his relationship with God isn’t rigid, but instead is rather playful and informal. He believes that God is able to control things, but Tevye isn’t afraid to talk back to this all-powerful being. He believes in the power of tradition to hold his family and his village together, but is also flexible enough to see when a tradition no longer serves its purpose and needs to change.

But even Tevye’s open-mindedness has its limits. There is a line in the sand that even he can’t cross. And the moments where he struggles with these decisions are among the most challenging I’ve played as an actor. The emotions that I’m feeling as I react to my three oldest “daughters” are as raw and real as anything I’ve experienced on stage. (It helps, of course, that all three of them: Ellie Wentzel, Ciara Adams and Tyler Nevison, are wonderful actors in their own right.)

It’s easy to see stage musicals as something light and silly. Fiddler has always been much more than that, and I think its universal, lasting appeal to performers and audiences is the result of this realistic emotional depth. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know Tevye well. Like most memorable characters, I imagine he’ll be sticking around with me far after our final performance on Saturday night.

The St. Clair Theatre Guild presents Fiddler on the Roof this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 12-14, 2014, at East China Performing Arts Center, 1585 Meisner Road in East China Township. More information is available on the Guild’s website.