A Visit with Douglas Sills
The 1997 - 1998 Broadway season ushered in long-running, beloved musicals (THE LION KING, RAGTIME), award winning plays (THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, ART, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE), and celebrated revivals (CABARET, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1776, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, THE SUNSHINE BOYS) but nothing captured my imagination like THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.
The Scarlet Pimpernel starred the charismatic, ridiculously handsome Douglas Sills as Sir Percy Blakeney, a dashing English aristocrat with a secret. The musical, set in 1792 during the early stages of the French Revolution, contains themes of love, betrayal, and redemption wrapped in a life-and-death adventure with a social justice call to arms.
Douglas, as Sir Percy, was at various points in the show "a formidable swordsman and quick-thinking escape artist" and a "dim-witted, foppish playboy" whose self-appointed mission was to rescue innocent victims from the swift slash of Madame Guillotine.
Douglas Sills became the toast of the town in his Broadway debut. He received a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations (he won the Theatre World Award). I even remember reading the paper and seeing he had his portrait added to the famed gallery of theater notables at Sardi's.
The show had several incarnations on Broadway because, although it evidently had structural problems, fans refused to let it go gently into that final good night. I was one of them. I attended every artistic reboot and marveled at Douglas' soaring vocals on songs like INTO THE FIRE and the goosebump inducing SHE WAS THERE. Like every good theater geek I bought the cast recording, took friends to see the show and read the original source material. And although I may have let myself imagine meeting Douglas and, perhaps, becoming best buds, I never envisioned "that damned, elusive pimpernel" taking part in Broadway Books First Class. That happened by chance, a happy series of circumstances that allowed our paths to cross and, in turn, confirmed my belief that the universe has my back.
This is a good time to answer one of the questions I get asked most often with regards to the program, which is "How do you get performers to visit?" Sometimes the chain of events is quite short. I may know the performer or reach out directly via email or handwritten letter sent to the stage door.
In this case (with Douglas) the chain is quite long. It started with Nicole Duncan-Smith (mother of my former first grade student and Broadway performer, Eden Duncan-Smith) who introduced me to Hollie Wright who introduced me to Kim Weild who introduced me to Elizabeth Ward Land. Elizabeth and I performed My Grown-Up Christmas List at a benefit called Broadway Holiday (she sang, I signed) and she visited the program in Year Two. Elizabeth was also featured on Broadway in The Scarlet Pimpernel and introduced me to Douglas Sills via email after she learned of my love for that show and my admiration of his talent.
It took a bit of time to arrange a visit because Douglas was starring in WAR PAINT with Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole but on March 20, 2018 Douglas Sills stepped into my classroom!
As soon as he sat down the children questioned him about the stage mechanisms involved with the guillotine. They were very intrigued to learn more about how theater magic makes the audience think heads are falling into baskets. For his part, Douglas was interested in learning more about American Sign Language (ASL). By the time he left he had a few signs under his belt and even had his own name sign (given to him by a student who is deaf, which is in line with the unwritten, yet understood, rules of Deaf culture).
After introductions (he memorized the name of every student), Douglas shared some childhood pictures. He was amiable, animated, and amused throughout by the children and their questions as he talked about his mom Rhoda (that 60s hair style), the sweet dog his family rescued (named Satan!), his love for his siblings, and his First Grade class picture ("Where is Waldo? Where is Douglas?"). Nobody guessed correctly but everyone had fun trying, including the adults in the room.
Douglas read the beautiful children's book WE'RE ALL WONDERS by R. J. Palacio. He told the children, "The most successful people and the most fun people enjoy reading and talking about reading". The connection was made between reading and creating art, which is the point of Broadway Books First Class, when he talked about composer, lyricist and producer Frank Wildhorn (THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, JEKYLL & HYDE). Douglas even FaceTimed Frank (he didn't answer but we recorded a message for him).
Douglas prepared the children for the reading by telling them, "If you close your eyes for a moment and be quiet we are going on a trip together. We're going to read a book. Open your eyes and we'll begin". They were hooked and later, in their thank you cards, many children wrote how much they enjoyed this part of his visit writing, "Thank you for inspiring us and asking us to close your eyes and imagine what's happening inside our mind." Douglas is a wonderful teacher and got a healthy round of applause when the reading was complete.
Afterwards, he questioned the children on aspects of the book and then they asked him questions about his journey to Broadway - his training, his motivation, and his inspirations. He said, "I think, tell me if you agree, if something is worth doing, it's worth working hard at (the children visibly and/or audibly agree) sometimes the best things are the things you get through hard work, not the things that come easiest." Douglas showed off a bit of his hard work by singing INTO THE FIRE right there in the classroom - and it was spectacular.
As we entered into a conversation about WAR PAINT and his famous costars he took out his phone and called (via FaceTime) Broadway legend Patti Lupone! And SHE ANSWERED! I may have freaked out a little when he introduced us and may have shouted "I Love You!" into the phone but hopefully, for the most part, held it together. We all said hi to Patti and her husband as a bit of chaos ensued with the children crowding around the phone to get a better look before saying goodbye.
Then, Douglas settled in to write a personal message and autograph copies of the book for each child. As he did he took his phone out again. This time he called two-time Tony Award Winner Christine Ebersole! And SHE ANSWERED! Good Lord! Christine was just as gracious and kind as Patti, saying hello to the children with a big smile on her face. I've spent a lot of time sitting in the theater enjoying the talents of these two performers so having the opportunity to say hello was a great honor.
It turns out I met three of my theater heroes that morning. All of them helped me send a message to the 30 students in attendance that reading feeds the imagination, that theater brings people together and that we are all wonders.
Broadway Books First Class