BRATTLEBORO — President-elect Jimmy Carter was preparing for his 1977 inauguration when Brattleboro Union High School drama director Robert Kramsky stumbled into the opening challenge of his own debut: How to get the shortest boy in a gaggle of first-time actors to shed his glasses and blindly lead classmates to their Act 1 marks on stage.
The show was Oliver!
Kramsky, once an aspiring actor, had come to town to follow in the professional footsteps of his mother, a longtime English and theater teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. His only obstacle: The then-twenty-something had never directed a musical.
“All [the while I was] growing up I saw how much fun my mother had and the connection she made with kids,” he recalls. “I was thinking that would not be a bad thing to try.”
Somehow pulling the cast and crew into shape, Kramsky decided to do it again the next year, and the next year, and the next, until - fast-forwarding through the four decades of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama - the soon-to-be 70-year-old has come full circle, directing his first musical, Oliver!, one more time.
And one last time.
Kramsky, one of the longest serving teachers working in Vermont (the state can't confirm his exact ranking because its digital database doesn't reach back that far), is set to retire in June, but not before presenting a show Feb. 13, 14, and 15.
It will be one of his biggest, with students teaming with teachers, alumni, and elementary schoolers representing the past, present, and future.
Creative casting by necessity
Although part of the casting is a nod to the director's upcoming departure, another is simple necessity.
“In our heyday, we would have 50 to 60 students auditioning for 30 to 35 parts,” he says. “Now we get a dozen auditioning, and we cast them all.”
Too many teenagers would rather plug into High School Musical on a streaming service, than actually participate in one. That's why this production of Oliver! - a musical take on Charles Dickens' tale of an 1800s British orphan - has become such a community effort.
“I'm Mr. Kramsky,” the teacher introduced himself last month to two dozen grade-schoolers portraying the title character and his peers. “I'm going to be helping you figure out what goes on here.”
Kramsky is used to working with teenagers. The group set to sing the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food” (the prelude to the classic line, “Please, sir, I want some more”), has members as young as third grade.
“I'm 8,” Katherine Kersten says.
“Practically 9,” classmate Anika Kolodziej adds.
Neither were alive a decade ago when Apple unveiled the iPad and Time magazine named Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg its 2010 Person of the Year. Yet sitting amid older students asked to define the 19th-century orphanage staple “gruel,” Kersten quickly raised her hand.
“A semi-liquid food made with meal cooked in water or milk,” said the show's youngest actor, who looked it up in a dictionary owned by her mother, Rebekah Kersten, an English teacher and adult cast member.
'Sure, why not?'
Sit in on a rehearsal, and you'll see that directing a musical is akin to juggling while unicycling on a too-short tightrope, what with the need to simultaneously jigger lines and songs and dances and sets and costumes and lighting in the fleeting after-school hours between New Year's and Valentine's Day.
Kramsky hadn't expected any of this upon his hiring in 1974. Back then, a music teacher directed the musical.
That changed in 1977.
“For some reason there was an opening,” Kramsky recalls, “and, because I was doing theater, they asked me, and I said, 'Sure, why not.'”
The teacher known for punctuating the dramatic reflects on his answer.
“That doesn't make interesting reading, does it? But that's what happened.”
Kramsky can't remember how Oliver! was chosen as his first show, other than it met the criteria: “in no particular order, what are the costs, is it something we can rehearse in six weeks, do we have the talent, and can it be staged?”
That's why the school has yet to present Broadway's longest-running musical, the chandelier-crashing Phantom of the Opera, but periodically has repeated such youth-focused staples as Annie and Grease.
Scan the wall of show posters outside the auditorium, and you'll see decades have passed since students have tackled the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics The King and I, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, and South Pacific.
“For the most part, what I think are the chestnuts, teenagers wouldn't want to do anymore,” Kramsky says.
Then again, they increasingly aren't attracted to any show.
“Most school activities have fewer students involved,” the teacher says. “Part of it is they'd rather spend their time on cell phones or computers, and part of it is the musical as a concept is not as interesting to people as it used to be, although now they're starting to find a new audience on television.”
Ask Kramsky for his three most memorable productions and he starts with 2003's Les Misérables.
“That was gutsy,” he recalls of the school's adaptation of the Tony Award–winning best musical. “It's all sung through and a big production in terms of sets and costumes. In my mind, it was perhaps the most challenging show we've ever done.”
Next is 2016's Rent.
The rock opera recognized with a Pulitzer Prize two decades earlier portrays a time when AIDS was a death sentence rather than a treatable disease. But no student in the cast was alive then, requiring local social-service professionals and people with the human immunodeficiency virus to visit the school to explain what the threat was and how it can be prevented today.
And finally, the teacher remembers the Brattleboro show that never made it to Broadway: 2006's Children of Eden, an early effort by Stephen Schwartz, composer of Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked.
“I loved it because, as a director, I think I made a lot of interesting creative choices,” Kramsky says. “It's boring to imitate what someone did on Broadway or in the movie. There was no version of this to imitate.”
Then there's the show that wasn't to be: Cats.
Kramsky toyed with it for years, only to have music teachers and behind-the-scenes colleagues Stephen Rice and Anthony Speranza dismiss it as a dog.
“They finally said, 'The year you retire, we'll do Cats,'” Kramsky recalls. “Then I came to my senses. I thought because Oliver! was my first musical, it would be kind of nice for it to be my last.”
A job he loves, a community that's supportive
And so a cast of 50, crew of 20 and orchestra of 16 are ramping up rehearsals for their Presidents Day weekend debut.
“All that make sense?” Kramsky recently asked the two dozen grade-schoolers of his directions on when to stomp in, stand up, sing out, and sit down.
Heads nodded affirmatively.
“You going to remember?”
Shoulders shrugged apprehensively.
For their part, a select group of high school alumni have been invited to step out of the audience and sing the Act 2 curtain-raiser “Oom-Pah-Pah.”
“It's a tavern scene and doesn't involve any big blocking,” Kramsky says. “And if they make mistakes, it doesn't matter - all the characters are supposed to be drunk.”
Kramsky can't name any former students who've graduated to Broadway. But he can point to plenty who work in the arts, as well as many more who once took the stage, like the director, to try something new.
Take that shortest boy who shed his glasses and blindly led his classmates in the opening scene of the teacher's first musical. He grew up to become the journalist who wrote this story.
“I consider myself pretty unique that I've been doing this 46 years at the same school,” says the teacher who would only have had to work three decades to have earned full retirement.
“I found a job I love and a community that's very supportive,” Kramsky says. “I never had any reason to want to leave.”