The Munchkins Are a Problem: One Mom's Struggle to Direct the Fifth-Grade School Play

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Helene Stapinski is a writer with no experience in the theater. Somehow she found herself directing the fifth-grade musical at Public School 29 John M. Harrigan, her son's elementary school in Brooklyn. Besides the show, Ms. Stapinski wound up producing an article that she titled, "The Munchkins Are a Problem: One Mom's Struggle to Direct the Fifth-Grade School Play." This is the first installment in a series that will run on Fridays for the next several weeks.


The seven-minute Munchkin Land medley is killing me. It’s one song after another in rapid fire sequence. Whoever wrote this -- Arlen and Harburg, you rats -- were absolute masochists. Judy Garland could handle it, of course. She was a pro. But didn’t they realize that schoolchildren around the globe would someday be unable to keep up with their untenable string of hits? What were they thinking?

Glinda’s “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” is followed immediately by the ditty about the house beginning to pitch and the kitchen taking a slitch, which is followed by “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead,” which segues nicely into the Mayor of the Munchkin City’s declaration, which trades lines quick quick quick with the Barrister and then the Coroner, followed by the Lullaby League, and then the Lollipop Guild, who look bored to death, to be quite honest, followed by the tra la la la las, then “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and finally, thank heavens, “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” I thought they’d never get going.

“Lollipop Guild! Lollipop Guild!” Gina, the director, shouts. The whole scene comes to a crashing stop. “Can you look a little happy? The witch is dead, you know.”

Todd, our tech dad, shakes his head miserably.

The Lollipop Guild shifts uneasily. One sits down on the stage, overcome by a special mix of fatigue and boredom, which seems to be contagious around here.

This is all too much, not just for a group of unseasoned 10-year-olds, but for yours truly. At the end of Friday rehearsals, I am hoarse, my feet are killing me and my head feels like it’s going to explode. And still, the scene is an absolute mess. And we haven’t even choreographed it yet.

“People!” I shout to the confused, milling mob on stage. “You’re clumping!”

I need a stiff cocktail every Friday night, which my husband lovingly prepares for me. He’s on an Old Fashioned kick these days, but his patience with me seems to be waning. It takes me hours to unwind and feel the munchkin-induced tension escape my body. My voice returns by morning.

So does my son’s. His name is Dean. He’s playing the Wizard, which is the sole reason I am here week after week, helping to direct this monstrosity. But lately, he’s been complaining about having signed up. “You and Gina and Todd,” he says. “All you do is yell at us.”

“Well, if you stopped yapping during the scenes, you’d be able to hear me and then I wouldn’t have to yell!” I yell.

He’s right. We are all in a rage. If there’s one thing every parent should know, deep in his or her darkest heart: stay away when kids want to put on a play. Just go watch and clap. Is there a more classic cliché of after-school misery than a fifth-grade rehearsal gone horribly wrong? But it’s too late. And this rehearsal, amid the yelling and boredom and tra la las, was the low point.

Who knew when I signed up that my life would be thrown into chaos for 10 months? That I would risk my mental health and household order -- and even my marriage -- all for the sake of a few bows. I certainly didn’t.

Nor did I know that by some small miracle, it might all be worth it.

“Wicked Witch? Wicked Witch? Where are you?” I shout. The witch is supposed to come out and terrify Dorothy. She belatedly appears, stage right, with cellphone in hand.

“Sorry. My mom called.”

“No cellphones!” Gina booms through the circa-1920 public school auditorium.

Todd shakes his head miserably.

How could any of us have seen then what was ahead: That this would turn out to be more than a play. It would become an unexpected opportunity and probably the last one, to see my son as a little boy, not the young adult he would soon be, along with all his friends whom he’d traveled with from pre-K. As Oz came into focus, week after week, they would learn about working hard, taking responsibility, about helping each other out. About bonding together against crazy parents. About leaving their cellphones at home.

There would be tears, missed cues, little victories, broken hearts, new freedoms, a lesson about puberty, and even, on the periphery, a death, one that would speed up everyone’s race to adulthood just a little bit more. Finally, at the end, the very end, there would be a small miracle.

And I’d be there to witness it.

In the meantime, I’d also learn to block a scene and grommet a backdrop.

But today, that future seems so impossibly far away, nonexistent really. Because the Lollipop Guild is bored and the Wicked Witch’s mom is on the line and Todd is miserable and the stage is filled with clumping tiny actors and, let me tell you, the munchkins are a problem.

Chapter 1

I should have run screaming from the school yard that first afternoon when Gina walked toward me. But it was such a beautiful day, the clouds bouncing over the Brooklyn brownstone chimney tops, the kids yelling happily in the black tar courtyard, the first tingles of spring fever infecting every last one of us at P.S. 29.

“You know they got rid of the drama teacher?” Gina asked. It wasn’t really a question but a statement of fact. Gina was very direct. Which is what I liked about her. Her family was Southern Italian, like mine, no bull, no punches pulled.

I nodded. City budget cuts had led to the drama teacher’s recent demise. Each year, she had put on a school play with the fifth graders. So this meant that Gina’s son, Nicky, and my son, Dean, rising fourth graders, wouldn’t have their play next spring. It would be their last year at P.S. 29.

“It’s really a shame,” Gina said. I nodded again, squinting in the sun bouncing off the black top. “I’m thinking of maybe directing the fifth-grade play myself,” she said, quickly. My squinting eyes went round.

Here it comes, I thought. Here it comes.

“Would you be interested in helping me if I got it off the ground?” she asked, with stiletto-quick delivery. I let a few seconds pass, the wound still so fresh and not even hurting yet.

“Sure,” I said, thinking -- kidding myself, really -- that Gina would never get it off the ground. “Just so you know, I have no theater background.” I used my hands for emphasis, like I usually did when I talked, waving them in front of me to stress “NO THEATER BACKGROUND. WHATSOEVER.”

I had been the angel Gabriel in our first-grade Nativity play back at Our Lady of Czestochowa 39 years ago. But I knew that didn’t count. “I’ve never even been in a play, really,” I said.

I was not a theater person. I honestly couldn’t stand most theater people. Unless they were safely away from me, up on stage, and doing an awfully good job, I couldn’t bear to be in close proximity to them. They made me cringe in embarrassment.

I had gone to N.Y.U. and had somehow wound up in a writing workshop freshman year with theater students from the Tisch School of the Arts. They would sit on the backs of their chairs with their strategically torn jeans and Flock of Seagulls hairdos and talk about how much they loved "Cats." They even sang songs from "Cats." Other days, they did weird facial exercises and talked about “motivation.” I almost jumped out of the workshop room window that semester. I could see the New York Post headline: "Freshman Kills Self, 'Cats' Wannabes to Blame."

Gina had no theater background, and putting on a play was a huge undertaking. So this would never happen. No way. She was not in “show biz,” like a couple of the semi-famous actor and actress moms and dads who wandered the school yard each day at pickup. They were rising or setting stars, whose faces you recognized, but whose names were unknown. There was the former Rockette. The Real Housewife from New York City and her husband. The mom from "Bride Wars." And that heavyset guy who’d been in the last few Woody Allen movies. Maybe they could direct a play. But us? No way.

Gina was as short as I was, an even 5 feet tall on a good day, with a big, Italian mouth like mine. She had a bum knee but had loved to dance when she was younger, and was now a financial adviser. Her main qualification for the job of drama teacher was that her house was right next door to the school.

“I was thinking 'Wizard of Oz?'” Gina said, her dark eyes lighting up. “What do you think?”

“It has a lot of leads,” I said. “A mix of boys and girls. Great songs. It’s a good choice.”

The last day of school. Gina came up to me again, and said she would talk to me in September, that she was planning on forming a drama club, and would let me know how negotiations went over the summer with our principal on actually staging a show. “You’re on board, right?” she asked, looking slightly desperate. I nodded. But I had no worries.

It would never happen.

Cut to September. Gina is talking to another mom, Annie, a woman who actually has a theater background. Annie’s daughter, Mary Leigh, is shy and freckled and adorable.

Annie is down-to-earth and pretty normal. She has neither a Flock of Seagulls haircut nor any desire to belt out songs from "Cats." She works part time with the Disney company, helping schools put on plays with Disney employees for free. Teacher artists, they’re called. I hear her and Gina talking about this. And it is intriguing, not only because the kids will have their play if the Disney people come in, but also because it will get me off the hook.

There’s one catch, though. The play has to be a Disney play. "Cinderella," "Little Mermaid," "Jungle Book," "Beauty and the Beast," which all sound great to me.

But Gina is not happy. She and Nicky have their hearts set on "The Wizard of Oz." And Gina does not like the idea of some young Disney wonks coming in here and telling her what to do. Even though she has no idea what she’s doing. Besides, she says, fifth grade is aging out of Disney already, don’t you think?

I shake my head and strongly encourage her to take the Mouse’s charity. “I mean, maybe you should let them do it,” I say. “We really have no idea how to put on a show. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“How hard could it be?” she asks, shrugging.

At the principal’s urging, and mine, Gina applies for the Disney grant. Weeks go by. The principal and I pray for the grant. Gina prays we do not get the grant. And lo and behold, Gina wins.

We’re off to see the wizard.

Next Friday: The Drama Club.