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.