The Munchkins Are a Problem: Casting About for Poppies Among the Dorothys

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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 Cobble Hill, 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 third installment in a series that will run on Fridays for the next several weeks. You can find earlier installments here.

Without the constant distraction of Troublemaker Two, and Troublemaker One -- who, miraculously has dropped out on his own accord -- I actually look forward to meeting the kids in the dreary, fluorescent-lit blue cafeteria on Fridays. Giving Richard a high five is always the starting high point of everyone’s afternoon. And then there is the long death march up to the fifth floor. I still do not enjoy this walk, but I am getting better at it.

The club has named itself “The Cast” and has come up with its own logo -- the smiling and sad masks of Comedy and Tragedy. Aidan, a tall blonde boy and one of the most awesome kids in the group, draws the logo.

We’ve planned a Christmas show, just to give the kids a chance to warm up to the stage. And to give Gina and me a chance to warm up to it, as well. For Christmas, the kids write a short play about Santa and Elvis (Get it? Elvis, instead of Elves?). It is totally incomprehensible.

Fortunately, another group breaks off and does a Nutcracker Dance Off, with classically dancing ballerinas doing battle against break dancers to alternating versions of run-of-the-mill Tchaikovsky vs. hip hop versions which I’ve downloaded from iTunes. You just never know what you’ll find on iTunes. They all come together in the end to dance to that instant kid classic, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”

The dance off is actually kind of amusing, and only lasts two minutes, which is the best part. The Elvis play has three separate acts and lasts more than a half hour. We all suffer a slow, painful, theatrical death.

Over the Christmas holiday, Gina sends me a "Wizard of Oz" script, which she has purchased for $100 and says needs some tweaking in the opening scene. When I look at the script, I realize it needs more than tweaking. It needs to be totally rewritten. It is nothing like the film version or even the book version and involves blue people, yellow people and red people who narrate most of the story.

I have never written a script before and am instantly overwhelmed by how bad this one is. I really don’t even know where to start.

I begin editing. I get through the first part and then hand it off to Gina, who edits the rest of it, somehow. I feel like a heel, but she doesn’t complain and goes on to change the rest. She bats it back to me for an overall copy edit. I correct the typos and misspellings and remove anything that doesn’t make sense or follow through.

When the kids return from holiday break, we schedule auditions. We are down to 30 kids. The noise level has fallen ever so slightly with the reduction in drama club survivors.

Dean wants the part of the Scarecrow, but I fear he will never, ever memorize all those lines. After Dorothy, the Scarecrow has the most lines. Dean is already overwhelmed with fifth grade school work, middle school interviews, trumpet lessons and weekend art classes. He is so overwhelmed that he is in a daze half the time. (He asks that same week if he can walk to school on his own like some of his friends, but I’m worried that in his daze, he will be run over by a tractor trailer. So I say no.)

I know Dean likes his private, quiet time at home. Playing the Scarecrow will involve extra rehearsals and much more time than he realizes. So again I say no. I am the queen of no.

He settles on the Wizard. The title role! Still a juicy part! But he is slightly disappointed. As am I. I feel a soft, crumbling sensation in my chest as the other boys audition for the Scarecrow. I want them to fail miserably and have Gina say, “You know, Dean should really be the Scarecrow.” But that doesn’t happen. I have to stop myself from volunteering him for the role.

Most of the girls optimistically (and unrealistically, I fear) try out for Dorothy. And most of the boys for either the Scarecrow or Lion. No one really wants to be a poppy or a tree. I am so nervous during auditions, I can barely even watch. But of course, I have to sit in the front row with Gina, and smile. I’m not only nervous for Dean, but for all of these kids (except the Scarecrows) whom I’ve gotten to know over the last three months.

How on earth can they get up there like that and sing in front of me? Don’t they know I have no idea what I’m doing? That each and every one of them is better than I could ever be? They are all so brave and talented.

Demi doesn’t sing, but boy, does she light up the stage. Aidan, the quiet blonde boy who designed the club logo, has a very sweet voice but a dynamically bold stage presence. He uses a toy axe to act out the king’s speech from the third "Lord of the Rings," leaping from the stage on the last line. His dad, Todd, usually a calm, laid back kind of dude, is sitting in the audience, strung out, practically shouting out Aidan’s lines along with him.

But Aidan blows everyone away. Todd has no reason to worry.

Dean, as I watch peeking out from my hands, does a monologue from "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and gets a big round of applause. Nicky, Gina’s son, does his best Burt Lahr imitation. He was born to be the lion. It turns out Gina’s maiden name is Leone (Italian for lion). But then Crockett does the “Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!” lion monologue, and rules.

One girl, whom everyone loves and thinks is hilarious most of the time, breaks down crying and runs from the stage. Exactly what I would have done.

Mary Leigh, the very quiet, shy girl, does the Violet Beauregard monologue from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." For the past several months, her thespian parents have been sending her for drama and singing lessons.

Whether it’s natural or learned, Mary Leigh has a magnetic stage presence and voice which carries to the back of the auditorium and bounces right back again.

We put on a DVD of "The Wizard of Oz" for the kids to watch, then Gina and I meet with a couple of other parents who have come forward to help. We crunch together in the backstage doorway and compare scribbled notes.

After about 20 minutes, we’ve got not only one cast, but two. We pick two leads for each role. All leads will also sing and dance in the chorus on their days off.

Dean has landed the Wizard, along with a kid named Edward, whom everyone, even his parents, calls Eggy. Demi and Grace are the witches. Crockett and Nicky will be the lions. Anna (the Ween daughter) and Aidan are Tin Men. Thomas and Emma are scarecrows and Mary Leigh is Dorothy, naturally. A cute little girl named Holly will play Dorothy, too. Or Two, I should say.

We also have two Totos, two Glindas, the Mayor of the Munchkin City, the Barrister, Coroner, the Lollipop Guild, the Lullaby League, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, angry trees who throw apples, gatekeepers, lots of munchkins and Emerald City folk, flying monkeys, winkies and even a bunch of poppies. Some kids will be playing three or four roles. I wonder how they -- and I -- will ever keep it all straight.

We will be practicing from now on in the auditorium, with its wide aisles, its ancient, curved wooden seats, and its big, old wood-framed windows that need to be opened with one of those long metal poles. Mercifully, the auditorium is on the second floor, so there are no more long death marches up the stairs.

Gina makes copies of the script and brings them to the first real rehearsal. She has failed to bind them together, though. She has also failed to put page numbers on them. These two seemingly small missteps add up to a catastrophe. The children, probably 20 out of 30 of them, drop the script repeatedly onto the floor and have no way of putting them back together correctly. I try. I spend the next two hours trying to place the pages in order.

Gina simply reprints the scripts the next week and places them in hard black binders for each and every child. Genius. Why didn’t I think of that?

Next Friday: All Munchkins, all the time.