Melissa Shapiro, Musical Teacher and Director at The Child School on Roosevelt Island in New York City, recently collaborated on a production of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, featuring students with special needs. Melissa was kind enough to share her experience with us.
Congratulations on your successful production, Melissa! Tell us a bit about yourself and your work on this project.
I am the music teacher at The Child School, which educates students with a range of disabilities in kindergarten through twelfth grade. I recently had the privilege of working on the revised version of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN with various special needs students at our school.
I musical directed this year’s production and worked with my wonderful talented director, Christopher Vivolo. We are a dream team together, and have formed close bonds with our middle and high school students who participated in this production.
It sounds like it was quite an experience!
We’ve gone through our fair share of laughs, tears, inside jokes, last minute crises, and various other hilarious moments when you’re working on a big musical for a special needs school. I know that I do not regret any of the time we have all spent together, and the students are now part of a special community, which will give them memories that will last a lifetime.
What has been your favorite part about working with this group on YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN?
The most amazing part of this creative process has been the transformation I have personally seen within our students. I have witnessed emotionally disturbed students combat stage fright and fear of being bullied. I have seen students step up as friends to hug and comfort another cast mate in need. I have been completely shocked that our leads and ensemble remembered all of their blocking on stage, especially after reading their specific IEPs.*
[*The IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a document developed for each public school child eligible for special education.]
To say that this experience was rewarding is a heavy understatement. My fellow director and I received many compliments on our hard work and on the production in general, but the most common remark was how well the show was cast.
How well did the students take to their characters? Could they relate to the Peanuts gang?
Character exploration was particularly fun for this show, and there are so many great expressive opportunities in a school setting. Sally’s entire monologue about getting a “C” on her coat hanger project resonated with our students, and our Sally was able to convey the cuteness and simultaneous manipulative nature of the character.
Our students were in character throughout the entire show and even ad-libbed lines as their characters. For example, we decided to have Sally and Lucy enter on stage at the end of “Suppertime,” singing the background vocals in a gospel style and adding appropriate hand motions. Charlie Brown’s line in the actual script is “Now wait a minute, Snoopy. Now cut that out! Why can’t you eat your meal quietly and calmly like any other normal dog?” However, in rehearsal, our Charlie Brown added yet another line and said, “And where in the world did you find these backup dancers?” Needless to say, my director and I started laughing hysterically.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in mounting this show with your students?
YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN is such a great show to perform in general, but for students with disabilities it’s a solid choice. The two songs that were the most challenging were “Book Report” and “Glee Club Rehearsal.” They both have multi-faceted parts of music coming together, designed to sound like normal speech. “Book Report” is meant to be a parody of an oratorio or operetta in a church-like style. As a result, there is complex counterpoint, and each character has to be extremely confident with his or her individual part. Many of these students have not had to be accountable for learning such highly complex melodies in the past, so this was quite a challenge.
Similarly, “Glee Club Rehearsal” was challenging for the students to know where to say their particular lines, such as “Give me my pencil!” and “Not on your life!” and “What’s an enigma?” However, having the familiar “Home On The Range” melody was comforting for the students – and it’s extremely catchy, which definitely helped the learning process for that particular song.
Were there any themes in the show that really resonated for you and the cast?
As an educator, I find anything that promotes the concept of teamwork and collaboration is favorable. “The Baseball Game” allows the characters to explore that idea, and it so happens that our Charlie Brown was one of the eldest students in the production. He is a natural leader, and the students responded to him well at the beginning of the song as he said, “Gimme a T! Gimme an E! Gimme an A! Gimme an M! Whattaya got? TEAM!”
I really love how this show represents every type of person a student comes into contact with at school. Lucy is that super bossy girl that is very Type A and has to have her way all of the time. She is mostly all talk but if she needs to act and exude her strength, she will. Sally is adorable and uses that to her advantage. Linus is extremely intellectually advanced for his age, yet somehow cannot manage to go without his blanket for even a minute. Schroeder is an intense musician who likes his solitude and gets annoyed with the rest of the world very easily, especially Lucy. Snoopy just gets it. He is the only character (and happens to be the only non-human) who knows what’s really going on in each character’s head and what his or her motivation really is. Of course, Charlie Brown is the kid who tries so hard and just cannot seem to win but has so much heart.
So what made CHARLIE BROWN such a good fit for The Child School?
This show is so heartwarming and genuine. It has the power to bring people together and to inspire love and creativity in all types of students and learners. I would highly recommend this show, as it is very age-appropriate and fun. I have many fond memories of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN from my high school musical days, and now I have come full circle and musical directed The Child School’s production. I am proud, and know that the students did an extraordinary job.
All photos by student photographer Joseph Lanzi, courtesy of The Child School