Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Greater Richmond H S All Star Robe

Posted by Bruce Miller
What do the first two Greater Richmond High School All Star Musicals (Grease and Disney’s High School Musical) have in common? Well, lots of things. But even after noting the similarities in plot, characters and tone, one is struck by the central theme running through the final number of both shows.

“We go together,” the entire cast of Grease sings at show’s end, “Like rama lama lama ke ding a de ding a dong. Remembered forever, like shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom. Chang chang chang-it-ty chang shoo bop, That’s the way it should be!”

And from Disney’s High School Musical

“Together, together, together everyone
Together, together, come on let’s have some fun
Together, we’re there for each other every time
Together, together, come on let’s do this right

Here and now its time for celebration
I finally figured it out
That all our dreams have no limitations
That's what it’s all about

Everyone is special in their own way
We make each other strong
We’re not the same
We’re different in a good way
Together's where we belong
We're all in this together

Once we know that we are
We're all stars and we see that
We're all in this together
And it shows when we stand hand in hand
Make our dreams come true”

Last summer, the company of Grease began a tradition at their closing night party to recognize the togetherness that existed among them, and to pass that spirit of unity on to the cast of the Greater Richmond High School All Star Musical 2007. They each wrote a signed message of best wishes onto a cardboard tag, and pinned them all onto the turquoise silk robe worn by Sarah Pruden in the show.

Each member of the company who had graduated and was leaving high school behind (Tyler Adams, Deejay Gray, Claire Harvey, Andy Nestor, Emily Perkins, Sarah Pruden, Steven Ralph, Robert Watkins and Chris Withers) put on the robe and circled the cast. Finally, a pink poodle representing Grease was sewn onto the robe before it was returned to costume storage for the long cold winter.

This year, on Opening Night of Disney’s High School Musical, the Robe, now aged in a year’s worth of love and good will (thereby earning the right to spell its name with a capital R), was presented to Suzanne Spicer, the actor in the ensemble who had reached the highest grade level and enjoyed the most experience in previous editions of the Greater Richmond High School All Star Musical. Suzanne put on the Robe, and, before the show, visited each company member throughout the theatre, inviting them to connect with the Robe (and the spirit it represents) for good luck. They all did. Dave Amadee buried his face in the darn thing.

OPENING NIGHT WAS A HUGE SUCCESS! Following the final performance of Disney’s High School Musical next Sunday, the entire company will be invited again to create personal expressions of best wishes and pin them onto the Robe as a gesture of support for next summer’s cast. A three-dimensional symbol of High School Musical will be sewn onto the Robe also, so that the Grease poodle won’t have to spend another winter alone.

Then, next July, another cast of talented High School All Stars will take their turn on the stage and in the Robe.

As Stephanie Carr, last summer’s Rizzo, wrote on her tag: “Appreciate this opportunity with all of your heart. You make one-of-a-kind friends and walk away with unforgettable memories. HAVE FUN. Break a leg.”

“We’re all in this together.” “That’s the way it should be.”

--Bruce Miller


pnlkotula said...

Bruce, wasn't there a similar robe that used to be passed around from theater to theater on opening night? Do you know what happened to it?

Bruce Miller said...

Hi Lisa. I'm the wrong one to ask, because I loved the Richmond Theatre Robe. Make that "love" in the present tense. But I'm in the minority. Many if not most Richmond theatre artists tired of it over time, or never liked it in the first place, so they will tell the story differently than I will. They can comment on this post as well.

Yes, there was a Richmond Theatre Robe. It was presented by an anonymous admirer (who identified himself only as "R") to Tempy Cornelius Fisk who played Desiree in "A Little Night Music" at Theatre IV in the mid 80s. She found it hanging in her dressing room prior to Opening Night, with instructions on what to do to begin a tradition of spreading good will from show to show.

The Robe itself and the instructions were based on the Gypsy Robe that is a beloved part of Broadway tradition. Anyone who is interested can Google Gypsy Robe and Broadway and find out more.

The Richmond Robe circulated for several years among Richmond theatres, and then disappeared when an actor in "The Foreigner" didn't understand the tradition and kept the Robe in his closet for about three years, thinking of it as a personal souvenir.

A new Theatre Robe was created in the mid-90s by Theatre IV's costume shop and presented to Hansford Rowe on the Opening Night of "Da" at Theatre IV. The really weird thing was, and this is completely true and was totally unplanned, the original Theatre Robe reappeared that very same night, presented to Pete Kilgore who was starring as the Stage Manager in "Our Town" at Barksdale.

Apparently "Our Town" was the first show in three years that the fella who had kept the Robe in his closet was cast in. No one had known where the original Robe was, and then on the night that a new Robe was introduced, the original suddenly reappeared. Tell me that's not Fate knocking on the door.

Anyway, the two Robes circulated for a while until they were so covered with sewn-on mementoes that they became too cumbersome to carry around. One of them was so heavy it actually broke the wooden hanger it was hanging on as it was being transported following "Curse of the Starving Class" at the Firehouse. Thereafter, a third Robe was created.

The Richmond Theatre Robe was presented to and worn by Tony nominees (Pat Carroll, Emily Skinner, Elizabeth Welsh) and Richmond theatre legends (Pete and Nancy Kilgore, Bill Pitts, Mary Graham and many others). It was shared with families at various memorial services, and gold-painted wooden stars noting the names of notable Richmond theatre artists who had died were sewn onto its lapels.

But over time, newer generations of Richmond actors lost interest. The third Robe circulated a bit, but the tradition was increasingly viewed as hokey and old hat (or worse), and the maintenance of the Robe was viewed as a chore. Actors grew to dislike it, and began to groan when it once again appeared at another Opening Night.

Since the Robe tradition was intended to spread good will, it became ineffective. Since it depended on individual actors taking the responsibility of sewing mementoes onto it, discretely passing it on from theatre to theatre, etc., the tradition simply died. I don't think the Robe has been seen anywhere in at least five years, and to the best of my knowledge, no one other than a handful of us have mourned its passing.

Times change. Leadership means starting new things, and sometimes letting old things go. A couple of Richmond's most prominent theatre leaders really dislike the Robe, and so, out of respect for their opinion, the Robe was retired.

I believe that at least one of the Robes is in Theatre IV's storage somewhere. The tradition and the Robe will always be there for anyone who is interested.

But I warn anyone who tries to revive the tradition, there are some highly respected leaders in the Richmond theatre community, several of whom are my good friends, who don't like the Richmond Theatre Robe. I agree with them that, depending on your perspective, it can seem silly, trivial and cumbersome.

I respect their opinions.

Jacquie O. said...

I was lucky enough to wear the theatre robe on opening night (I think it was robe #2) for the first production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I thought it was such a cool tradition and although it was not passed around for every show, I miss it and have wondered what became of it. I remember the cast spending hours looking at all the things people came up with to display on the robe. And even though I may not have known all the plays or actors it gave me a sense of history. Wouldn’t be a great idea to find all three robes and display them for all to enjoy in some special place at Barksdale (or maybe one robe at Barksdale, one at Swift Creek and one at Theatre IV?) I guess I can understand that it would be a pain in the tush to keep track of the robe...but for folks to have an actual problem with the theatre robe tradition and the sense of nostalgia that these robes brought to the community seems really weird to me.

Anyway Bruce...I bet tons of people would love to see these wonderful robes displayed!

pnlkotula said...

Thanks Bruce. The last time I personally saw it was at the opening of Ruthless the Musical at RTP. I am probably in the minority, but I thought it was sweet, and I hadn't thought about it until this post. Nice trip down memory lane.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

I think it's an absolutely fantastic idea! It's such a great gesture and seems like really delightful fun!!! I think we should absolutely resurrect the tradition!

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Oops...I missed the end of Bruce's comment. Sad that it grew to hold negative feelings.

I think it's really sweet. Since times have continued to change, why not, right?

If it's good enough for Broadway...!