"My back started hurting this morning when I thought about 10 years," says Tony Sias, director of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District All-City Musical, speaking of the program's 10th anniversary. "Ten years makes a brother start to feel old!"
To mark the milestone for the program, which was launched to fill a void left by cutbacks in schools, Sias and collaborator Bill Rudman conceived the retrospective show A Decade of Dreams, which samples musical numbers and scenes from shows produced during the program's first nine years. Rudman, local musical-theater guru and host of the syndicated radio show Broadway Melody, wrote the book. Sias says Rudman took songs from Little Shop of Horrors, Once on This Island, The Wiz, West Side Story, Carmen Jones, Hot Mikado, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls and Dreamgirls, and wove a story about the artistic obstacles the All City program has faced.
"Money was the least of our challenges," says Sias. "When we did Carmen Jones [Oscar Hammerstein's 1943 update of George Bizet's opera], that was a vocal challenge for our students."
But looking back, he says, that show is also an example of the education students get while producing musical theater. The story was moved from a 19th-century cigarette factory in Spain of Bizet's original to a parachute factory in the U.S. during World War II. "So we were able to teach about World War II, the role of women played in the war effort and the role of African Americans," says Sias.
Artistic challenges also arose from the district's diversity and the program's penchant for casting against type, flipping on their heads the dynamics that drove some of the original productions.
"Take a show like South Pacific, which is all about diversity," says Sias. "The role of Nellie is usually played by a white actress dealing with racism. But we had an African-American Nellie dealing with a very different experience of racism."
He sees opportunity in challenge, which carries over to both programs and the individual productions. All-City programs were started because the school district could no longer afford arts programming at individual schools. So while it's a reminder that students have less arts access than in the past, the concentration into a single program immerses students in a professional-level production that they wouldn't have otherwise. For example, this year's Decade of Dreams will be performed at Great Lakes Theater Festival's newly renovated Hanna Theatre. Production staff also draws from the region's professional talent pool — from choreographer Michael Medcalf to music director David Manning Thomas, to media relations provided by GLTF's staff.
There are more than 60 students from 10 different schools involved in the production. "And they're teenagers," notes Sias. "You know why I keep my hair short? It's so I don't pull it out. But we have some of the best kids you can imagine."
Based at John Hay High School, the year-long program begins in September with an open house at PlayhouseSquare. That's followed by auditions for different ensembles and other All-City programs, which include jazz, theatre, visual arts and poetry. Students go to John Hay after school for practices. Auditions for the spring musical are open to all CMSD students, whether or not they are in the All-City program. But, says Sias, participating students are "more likely to be prepared" to land roles.
A Decade of Dreams is inherently nostalgic, especially for Sias, who has directed All-City musicals for the past seven years. It's even more so this year because five alumni will return for onstage cameos with current students. Sias and Rudman (also an All-City veteran) will use their experience to add an autobiographical element to the production.
"The through line is that through the songs of the shows, we reflect on the past and present, and look forward to the future," says Sias. "Every time I hear the songs 'Tonight' and 'Somewhere' [from West Side Story, the first All-City production Sias directed], I get teary-eyed."