Broadway Books First Class
Christine Pedi dwells in a land heretofore uncharted in the short history of my literacy and Arts program - she accepted a face-to-face invitation to visit my classroom without knowing anything about me. To my knowledge, there were no mentions or words of support from others who've participated. This tactic of cold calling previously bombed with the other performers I've approached - Sarah Jessica Parker, Cherry Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Matthew Broderick - but, I stand undeterred for the greater good. The Divine Ms. P. proves tenacity pays off!
In early October 2018 I saw Christine perform in NEWSical the Musical on Theatre Row. I've long admired her work, but this was the first time I saw her live and in person.
Christine holds a special place in my heart because the last memory I have of my dear friend, James, was giggling over Christine's parody of Telephone (over the telephone! James was watching in New York and I was watching simultaneously in Florida). In the video, Christine switches the roles of Lady Gaga and Beyonce with Liza Minelli and Carol Channing. It was just the inspired silliness James enjoyed and although he sadly and unexpectedly passed soon after, his laughter that day is what I remember. Art lifts us, heals us, and brings us together.
Christine's energy, irreverence, and humor were all on full display as I watched her on stage. After the show I asked her about visiting my classroom to read and she was immediately on board. It turns out she was meeting with popular - and prolific - children's book author Tomie dePaola in the coming days, so the timing of my request was serendipitous. She suggested Tomie's book Oliver Button is a Sissy, which is a beautiful story about an artistic little boy "who won't give up on the dreams that make him unique".
Christine also suggested her all-time favorite children's book Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss. This classic picture book with its sage life advice has many, many fans - including former Broadway Books First Class guest artist Michael Urie, who also places it at the top of his favorites list. Ultimately, we decided on the latter choice (although I believe Oliver Button is a fantastic choice for the program).
I wondered, "Would she read the book using the warm, motherly voice of Julie Andrews or Angela Lansbury?" I could only hope!
Christine is known as "The lady of 1,000 voices" due to her incredible ability to step into character as Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and other well-known divas. This was first showcased in the legendary Off-Broadway revue Forbidden Broadway (and later in Forbidden Hollywood).
In preparation for her visit I showed the children Christine's Hello Dolly auditions video (I stopped it before "Patti LuPone" dropped the F bomb). As we watched I realized we were laughing for different reasons. I was chuckling because of Christine's spot-on interpretations of each performer. The children were laughing because she was wearing funny wigs, talking in different voices, and being silly. They were unfamiliar with Liza, Bernadette, Patti, etc. Although they did know Oprah and remarked afterwards that she was their favorite.
I also thought about the fact that some of the children are hard of hearing. How could we maximize the impact of the various impersonations for them? It turns out that augmentative technology, visuals, and an offer to feel her throat as she spoke did the trick. When the children asked her to do a voice, she entertained them Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast and with various character voices, such as a witch, a little baby, a toothless old man, a snake, and a chicken. She told us that in order to do character voices she thinks about the energy of the person or the animal. They responded with their own versions including a heart girl, a frog, and an Italian-accented Mario. That's a lot of frenetic energy pulsing through a classroom!
A voice the children were familiar with was Holly Blue Agate on the popular animated show Steven Universe. We took a moment to watch a clip from the hit Cartoon Network program, which was a good idea. It quieted all of the voices and led into Christine's other work. After all, she is much more than those myriad voices.
She has performed in three Broadway shows; Little Me, Talk Radio, and Chicago. During our Q&A she told us that Chicago was her favorite because, "It has been running for 22 years. It has some of the best music I've ever heard in my life. And it's funny and it's intelligent at the same time. That's why I like the Dr. Seuss book because it's very fun and it's joyful and it's colorful, but it's very smart. And I like things that can do both." She told us she saw the show 16 times! This meant she was in it for two weeks before she performed the show more than she saw the show! To which a child stood up and asked,
"Was Broadway your passion?"
I loved the essence of this impromptu question because it showed a depth of understanding about what drives performers like Christine. There is a calling that cannot be ignored. It is thrilling to me that the students are gaining an understanding of this and beginning to think about their own path in life. As Joseph Campbell stated, it is important to follow your bliss.
It seems that the question also brought us back full circle to the overarching lesson of the book she just read. One that tells us the path of life isn't always easy, but the path is ours and with determination we will get through.
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
KID, YOU'LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!