With this installment, the saga of the fifth-grade musical at Public School 29 John M. Harrigan concludes. Helene Stapinski, a writer with no experience in the theater, has been chronicling her adventure as co-director of “The Wizard of Oz” at P.S. 29, the elementary school in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, that her son, Dean, attended two years ago. 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.” SchoolBook has been rolling out the article in installments on Fridays, as a weekend treat for readers. You can find earlier installments here. This week: The happy ending.
It’s Saturday, the day of the show. I have hardly slept, but get to the school auditorium early to help set up.
I run over to the local toy store to have the giant balloons filled with helium for the wizard’s gondola. The toy store people charge me $10. I consider arguing with them, pointing out that this is a public school and that our kids and parents spend thousands of dollars on their marked-up prices and junky merchandise, and the least they can do is give us some free helium, for God’s sake.
But then I realize they are the only helium source in the neighborhood and if I alienate them, we won’t have any for the next three shows. I pay the $10 and keep quiet.
We set up the Witch’s Brew table in the outer cafeteria for intermission — Limeade donated by the local key lime pie baker, Steve. We put out the sugar cookies and more fancy baked goods, Yellow Brick Road lemon bars and the green Emerald City Rice Krispie treats, which look inedible, quite frankly.
The kids and parent volunteers start to show up around 2 p.m. We do their makeup, and Sally lays out all the costumes on the cafeteria tables; remarkably, even though they have been stored in a dead space with an old wind turbine, they don’t smell like coal.
Todd and I tie the balloons to the gondola using lightweight rope. I set up my iPod with all the sound effects: the tornado, the explosion for when the witch comes out, the Tin Man being oiled, the doorbell to Oz which I hope to master by today. I’ll be doing the sound cues. Plus 20,000 other things.
It’s hot, but not extremely hot, in the auditorium, hovering somewhere in the 80s. I open all the windows with that long, metal pole.
By 3:45, the audience is really starting to stream in and the temperature rises with the gathering of bodies. My mom is here, with my 21-year-old niece, Nicole, and with Aunt Julie, who has white, tall, cotton candy hair. I hope she’s not sitting in front of a small child.
My mother-in-law, who just had hip replacement surgery, even manages to climb the two flights up to the auditorium.
“She needs a pillow for her seat,” my husband says to me as I fly past, doing one of the 20,000 things I need to do. Now I have to find his mother a pillow.
A pillow. A pillow. Where would there be a pillow in a public school?
I head to the pre-K classroom and pray the door is not locked. And bingo! On the window seat, I have my pick of three pillows. I grab two, run down the hall to the auditorium and nearly throw them at my husband’s head.
I pull the blue curtains to the auditorium windows closed. Miss Nancy hits the house lights. Todd, crouching at the other end of the stage, adjusts his projector and gives me a thumbs up. Gina climbs up onstage to welcome the crowd and tells them, in her tough, straightforward way, to turn off their cellphones. They obey. And we’re off.
I take a very deep breath as the curtain opens and Mary Leigh steps onto the Kansas stage.
There’s not a hitch. Not a one. The kids nail each and every scene. The stage crew and curtain don’t screw up. Todd’s animation sequences and Giant Wizard Head work.
When the curtain closes on Kansas and then opens again on that beautiful yellow brick road backdrop, to the munchkin houses and colorful flowers, it’s even more awesome than that black-and-white-to-color change in the movie. The audience applauds before anyone even steps onto the stage.
We are in Oz.
It’s just like my niece Lauren told me over the phone. Somehow, some way, it has all come together, just minutes before curtain time and now it is a miracle. It is magic.
The Emerald City dancers know all their steps. Jazz hands and all. Nicky, the adorable lion, remembers all his lines and delivers laugh after laugh. Aidan is so animated as the Tin Man that I think perhaps he has a future in the theater.
Charlie, who plays Toto, not only remembers to bark, but is the hammiest kid I’ve ever seen; the audience adores him and roars every time he scratches or makes a move. Dean is smiling. I smile back up at him and give him a thumbs up.
And the munchkins. Oh, the glorious munchkins! They hit those cues. One after another. After months and months of drilling them and yelling at them and haranguing them, they are so on!
Mary Leigh hits every note in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
And I am so proud and overcome that I start crying before the play is even over. I’m crying silently and discreetly, but so much, I can hardly see the controls on my iPod for the sound effects.
When they come out for their curtain calls, beaming, holding hands, I see my husband rising up and leading the standing ovation. That’s when I really lose it.
This is one of the last times all these kids will be together, many of them headed to different middle schools, all of them headed to young adulthood.
As the flashes of the parents’ cameras go off in the audience, I realize that this play, this moment in time, will be remembered forever in their lives, not just a snap shot in a camera, but a moment in memory of childhood saved and celebrated, along with the pain and suffering and puberty talks and broken hearts and young drama.
They’ve all worked together so hard and so long and now, there is this wondrous payoff. This memory etched in each of their — in our — heads.
And I know that as much as I’ve complained and been panicked and have wished I’d never signed up for this, I’m going to miss these kids. These kids who won’t be kids for much longer. I realize that I’m going to miss rehearsals on Friday.
I am, to my sudden shock, no longer a theater-person hater, but perhaps have crossed over into becoming a theater person myself, lured in and now captive to its magic and wonder and life-changing possibilities.
I feel a sudden empty hollow open up inside me, all those empty Fridays stretching before me and skipping off into the distance, like that sparkling yellow road up on stage stretching into the unknown.
When the principal gets up to make a speech and thank us, she says that P.S. 29 has never produced anything like this. She, too, is crying.
People will be talking about this show for days to come on the streets of our neighborhood. Little girls will make their mothers buy them blue gingham dresses and tiny ruby slippers because of us.
The owner of the local soda shop requests a copy of the sepia-toned cast photo, autographed by each and every child star, so he can mount it behind his counter, for generations of children and their children and their children’s children to gaze upon while they sip their root beer floats.
Of course, there are setbacks in the wonderful land of Oz, as well as disappointments. Of course, Richard is not here to see it. The principal mentions him in her closing, and I start crying even harder.
The cast has finished their bows and are all sitting on the edge of the stage while the principal wipes tears away and congratulates them.
Dean is so hot, he undresses during her speech, pulling off his cravat and opening the buttons to his vest and shirt. But he’s smiling while he sweats.
When the principal asks, over the microphone, whether Gina, Todd and I will do it again, I hug Gina and shrug and think what a week ago would have been unthinkable.
“Well,” I mutter, “maybe.”
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to the parents who have shared their photos with SchoolBook, especially Stephen Freeman; to the children and parents of P.S. 29, who have essentially shared a part of their lives with our readers — and to Helene Stapinski for telling it like it was. Those who know her know that she can’t do it any other way.
Slide show by Hiten Samtani, with photos by Stephen Freeman.