From ‘Oklahoma!’ to ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, this neighborhood production celebrates 50 years of tradition

IT’S SHOWTIME!

When Woodrow’s stage curtains rise for the 50th time this month, trust us — you should be in that audience

Opening night of “Fiddler on the Roof” marks the 50th time a Broadway musical has debuted on Woodrow Wilson High School’s stage. On a campus steeped in history, perhaps no custom is more sacred than this annual show. The casting enlists the talents of everyone from baritones to linebackers, and the alumni list reads like a who’s who directory. Parents who participated during their high school days relish the chance to watch their children reprise those roles, and neighbors make it a point to return year after year.

So it’s only fitting that this year, when the curtain rises and Matthew George launches into his opening monologue as Tevye, the song that follows is more than just the anthem of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It is the theme of Woodrow’s musicals — “Tradition!”

The Eckelman Era

Seeing a Broadway musical on a high school stage is nothing unusual today, but when Helen Eckelman began teaching speech and drama in the fall of 1956, it was unheard of. Until that time, the biggest show at Woodrow was the annual spring play, usually consisting of 20 students. But Eckelman sensed she had enough talent at her disposal to do more, so she and choir director Robert Rankin decided to take a chance and stage Dallas ISD’s first-ever Broadway musical.

Eckelman’s choice for this inaugural production was “Oklahoma!,” a show that has since experienced numerous revivals and today is the most-performed musical on stages across the world (as well as on Woodrow’s own stage — a total of three times). But at the time, it was a fairly new script and concept, the first musical to tell a substantive story through song.

Though probably no one today would accuse Rodgers and Hammerstein of being risqué, Eckelman did change some of the lines so as not to alarm her Bible belt audience. One of those was Ado Annie explaining to her father that Ali Hackam called her a Persian kitten because “they was the cats with the soft round tails.”

“Helen felt that the Southern Baptist people down the street wouldn’t appreciate that, so it became ‘they were the cats that purr so soft and sweet,’” recalls Duward Sumner, who played Will Parker in the March 1958 production.

The entire school got behind the musical. Girls in home economics sewed costumes, art students painted sets, and when Eckelman found herself short of cowboys and farmers, she looked outside the choir and drama departments.

“We had no trouble getting girls, but we finally ended up tapping the football players, who were pretty coordinated, and the ROTC team, who had experience with drill,” Sumner says.

The end result was a huge success. All three performances sold out, and the show went off with only one hitch — a measles epidemic that plagued the cast and crew. Harry Haun, who had rehearsed for weeks in the role of peddler Ali Hackam, was one of those forced to watch the show from the back of the auditorium.

“I had the three-day measles the three days they did it,” laughs Haun. “If that’s not a sign from God [for a career change], I don’t know what is.”

Ironically, Haun now lives in New York City and writes for Playbill magazine, where his job requirements include interviewing Broadway actors and attending every musical’s opening night.

“I’ve been doing that since May 5, 1975, but who’s counting?” he jokes. “I felt sorry for myself for a long time [after “Oklahoma!”], but I don’t anymore. My mother’s heart was broken more than mine. I don’t think she ever quite got over it.”

Haun isn’t the only original Woodrow cast member to go on to greater heights. Sumner acted in plays, television commercials and movies; the girl who played Ado Annie, Kathy Johnson, had a brief career on Broadway; and Nina Hinson, who played Aunt Eller, became a world famous opera singer.

“I felt very comfortable on the stage, so this kind-of showed me this is something I would like to do for the rest of my life,” Hinson says. “I’m sure I would have studied music one way or another, but it made me want to be a performer on the stage — not just singing for fun, but to make a living — and I could tell from the reaction of the audience that I was good, that I had talent.”

Even students who wanted nothing to do with the musical wound up having their lives rearranged by it. John Owens claims he was “forced” into speech class as a junior, and on the first day he was asked if anyone in the room wanted to be exempt from speeches that year.

“My hand shot up,” Owens says. “That sounded like heaven to me.”

It turned out to be a ploy to recruit stagehands, and Owens enjoyed it so much that he wound up as stage manager his junior and senior years. That led to his current career with Texas Scenic, which renovates and builds theaters across the southern United States. In fact, Owens and his company recently recreated Woodrow’s stage curtains.

Students who worked under Eckelman’s direction compared her infectious enthusiasm to that of the indomitable Mame, a character immortalized by Angela Lansbury in the 1966 Broadway musical.

“She had that same sort of zest for life,” Duward Sumner says. “She was tall and thin, very dramatic, very outgoing, and really unlike any teacher I’d ever had. For those of us who worked with her on the musicals, she did become sort of like a mother.”

She made no secret that the “Oklahoma!” cast members were her pets. That original group continued to hold parties at Eckelman’s house for years, and many of them returned for her funeral in 2003. Neither these students nor Eckelman had any inkling that their amateur efforts would give rise to such a grand tradition, but they did know that first musical was monumental.

“They say high school years are the golden years. They’re not,” Haun says. “They’re traumatic as hell. But I think I was most alive at that time. It was the end all and be all at that particular time.”

The dynamic duo

Bircher and Hardman. To anyone associated with Woodrow musicals from the late ’70s until the early part of this decade, the pair might as well be ranked with other iconic musical teams, like Rodgers and Hammerstein.

After 12 years of musicals, Eckelman folded up her director’s chair and returned to simply teaching speech. Her successor was choir director Jerry McKinney, who oversaw shows for the next five years. When he left, Marca Lee Bircher stepped into his role, thereby inheriting the musicals.

An alumna of the Dallas Summer Musicals and the Dallas Opera, Bircher was familiar with the stage. Many felt Woodrow’s program had faltered since Eckelman’s reign, and Bircher was determined to return it to its former glory.

But she immediately encountered a problem: Male participation had dwindled significantly. Bircher had enough boys for the lead roles, but none to fill out the chorus. So she decided to introduce herself as Woodrow’s director with a show that, ironically, called for a mostly male cast — “Oliver.”

“I could take my girls and dress them up as waifs and little urchins, and they did beautifully as young boys,” Bircher says. “That was a good recruiting tool because the next year I had lots more boys, and the program grew quite a bit. By the time I left, I had more boys than girls. There were just boys out the wazoo.”

In fall 1977, the year that ninth-graders moved from J.L. Long Middle School to Woodrow, the theater program received another boost in the form of speech and drama teacher Patti Hardman. For three years, Bircher directed while Hardman staged and choreographed. But after the 1980 performance of “Anything Goes,” Hardman broke the news that her husband had accepted a job in California.

“When she left, she said, ‘I’ll come back and choreograph the musicals for you,’ and I said, ‘That’s wonderful,’ but you know how life is,” says Bircher, recalling how she doubted her colleague. “For 14 years, she came back and choreographed every year. At first, we couldn’t pay her anything, and she came back anyway. That was a big sacrifice for her. She did that as a labor of love for this school.”

Hardman moved back to Dallas in 1993, and immediately returned to teaching theater at Woodrow. The pair continued to work together for another decade, and then, fittingly, retired the same year. As a team, Bircher and Hardman had overseen 27 musicals and mentored thousands of students.

“Whether you decided to do an arts career or not, there was something they instilled in everybody to strive for excellence and to keep pushing and achieving,” says former cast member Stephen Cargile.

Today Cargile works in the Walt Disney Imagineering division, often designing artwork for theme park rides. These creative skills were first put to use as a high school sophomore, when he designed the program cover for “Anything Goes.”

“Marilyn Schwartz, a Dallas Morning News reporter in my era, asked Mrs. Bircher: ‘Did you have a parent volunteer? Some ad agency time?’ And Mrs. Bircher said, ‘No, Stephen Cargile did that. He’s 15.’ She made a comment about me specifically in her story,” he says. “Well, I was floating around for a month on that.”

Cargile continued to design the covers for the next five years as he finished high school then attended Southern Methodist University. He picked it back up about 15 years later as a present to Bircher when she celebrated her 25th anniversary at the school, and has been designing the covers ever since. Some people give their time to charities and benevolent organizations; Cargile says he contributes to the Woodrow musicals for much the same reason: “Because I want to make sure it keeps growing and going as it has for so many years.”

He was one of dozens of students who returned to honor Bircher and Hardman during a special 25th anniversary production highlighting musicals they had directed over the years. Another was Marjorie Hardwick-Schramel, co-founder of the New Orleans Ballet Company.

“I still have dreams about Woodrow Wilson High School musical auditions, that they’re coming up, and I haven’t prepared for them,” confesses Hardwick-Schramel. “Isn’t that weird? Twenty-three years later, it’s still completely my life.”

Hardwick-Schramel played leading roles all four of her years at Woodrow, “usually the goofy female lead that looks like Olive Oyl, or the Carol Burnett-y type of person. I was never the ingénue.”

She planned to attend college, but Bircher and Hardman convinced her to pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer. If it hadn’t been for their prodding, Hardwick-Schramel says, she probably wouldn’t have ended up on a New York stage dancing with Baryshnikov, or on a European tour as a cast member in “Cats.”

“The passion those two ladies had made you really crave what you were doing,” she says. “Now that I’ve become a professional ballet dancer, you would think I would have dreams about that, but [Woodrow musicals] are something that, in my mind, I couldn’t live without it. I would be devastated if I weren’t a part of it, or if it weren’t a part of me.”

Woodrow’s stage saw the last Bircher-Hardman musical in spring 2003. The two women decided to close with “Oklahoma!,” a nostalgic look back at Woodrow’s first musical and a fitting way to finish up nearly three decades.

“That’s a long time to do anything else, but it was a joy to work at it that long,” Bircher says. “It was a great ride.”

The next generation

A new team is at the helm of Woodrow’s musicals today — theater teacher John Beaird and choir director Sean Morrison, a Woodrow musical alum who played the title role when Bircher and Hardman directed “The Wizard of Oz.”

In their four years, Beaird and Morrison have undertaken some ambitious shows, including last year’s “City of Angels.” It debuted at Woodrow last spring to a fair amount of criticism from neighbors and parents stating their preference for more “traditional” shows. Ironically, when “Oklahoma!” was first performed on Woodrow’s stage, it was a newer production than “City of Angels.”

But most Woodrow musical lovers agree that Beaird and Morrison are doing a beautiful job, especially considering the enormous shoes they had to fill.

“I really wondered what would happen when the two ladies retired, but it’s really kept going to an amazing degree — it’s even stronger, in fact,” Cargile says. “It just seems to keep growing, and that’s reassuring to someone like me.”

Though he lives in Los Angeles, a city that revolves around show business, Cargile believes it’s safe to say that Woodrow’s theater arts department would stack up to or even surpass any program in California.

Perhaps he’s a bit biased, but he’s not the only one. When Candy Post took her children to professional musicals in Dallas and even London, they weren’t impressed in the least.

“We saw ‘42nd Street’ at Casa Mañana, and they bad-mouthed it all the way home because their show was better. It was almost embarrassing to get them out of there,” she says. “And I loved it because it’s true. It’s just kind of hard to explain to people because nobody believes you.”

Post began helping with Woodrow’s musicals in the early ’90s, when her twin daughters were in the chorus, and she continues to attend the rehearsals year after year, though her daughters have long since graduated college. The kids call her “Candy,” and when they need a few strokes, Beaird asks Post to give them a pep talk. She considers it her “job” and says she’ll attend rehearsals “as long as I can walk and as long as they’ll let me.”

The musical scene at Woodrow can be somewhat of a siren song. Neighborhood children hang around after the performances to get their programs autographed by the “stars,” and dream of the day when they will be center stage. Parents and community members volunteer by the dozens to paint sets, sew sequins and stock the cast “canteen.”

“People love it; they just love it,” says Nancy Montgomery. “People fight to be the backstage guy in black or costume mom or whatever.”

Montgomery played Lt. Mitchell Libby Cartwright in the 1969 production of “Guys and Dolls” under Eckelman’s direction. When Bircher and Hardman decided to reprise the show in 2000, her daughter, Lacy, wound up in the same role.

Watching multiple generations of students funnel through the program, Montgomery has seen myriad changes over the years. But what’s most significant, she says, is what has remained the same.

“It started with Helen Eckelman, and I think Marca Lee and Patti really set a bar. They just all demanded the most they could get from their kids, and everybody was really happy to give it,” she says.

“We are so lucky to have Sean and John continue that tradition of excellence. And the interesting part is they still have a whole community of support that started in 1958.

“That’s one thing that has stayed true from the very first musical.”


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