Most Broadway musicals are many years in the making before they actually debut on the Great White Way.
The same is true of Stare into the Mirror, an original musical performed by Dwight students this spring. The idea was first planted in 1999 for professional actors; 23 years later the first full-length production opened with Upper School students bringing the characters to life under the direction of Terrence Christgau.
The timing might have been written in the stars, as the story, which follows the ups and downs of a diverse group of cafe patrons who bond together when tragedy strikes, is very much grounded in the theme of community. Community with a capital “C” is, and has been, since the pandemic began, our central guiding light. All the students and faculty who were part of the production connected to the healing process that the main character goes through — everyone came together as a community to produce a musical about community. Additionally, this show was the first fully staged Dwight musical with unmasked actors since spring 2019 performed for a full house (audience members were masked due to COVID-19 restrictions).
Stare Into the Mirror was not just any show; the book, lyrics, and music were written by our Lower School Music Teacher, Vita Zambetti, and her husband, Teddy. The duo are a musical powerhouse: Ms. Zambetti has written original scores and arrangements, and her classical music performances have been featured in films and commercials. Mr. Zambetti, the in-house composer at Sirius XM, has created music and sound design for TV and radio commercials, film scores, show themes, and more.
The Inspiration … and Idea Revived
Dateline 1999: After seeing Rent, which was unlike anything that came before it on Broadway, Mr. Zambetti, who was then the Musical Director for the famed Groundlings Theater in LA, realized that he wanted to write musicals that didn’t fit into traditional boxes. He envisioned the musical’s story and characters — some inspired by people he knew, including his wife.
Originally titled “The Walk-in Closet” for the name of the cafe in the story, the piece had its first stage reading the same year, which garnered buzz. After Mr. Zambetti connected with industry people in New York about moving the show forward, he was offered a job at Sirius satellite radio and the couple relocated in 2000. While his new position left less time to finetune the musical, Mr. Zambetti did go back to it periodically; ultimately, turning to his wife to help take it to the next level. “I had gone as far as I could and wanted another voice; I wanted Vita to help me precisely because we have very different backgrounds,” he explains. “She is schooled in classical composition, orchestration, instrumentation, and performance, while I had been a rock and roll touring and recording drummer.”
“We bounced ideas off of one another, wrote lots of songs, and transformed it into a new musical,” Ms. Zambetti continues. “We started showing our product to producers and people involved in Broadway, who gave us their opinions. One thing led to another and we had a successful reading with professional actors in 2018.”
Additionally, renowned record producer Steve Jordan (John Mayer, Josh Groban, and The Rolling Stones) heard about the show and approached the Zambettis about producing a concept record based on the music, which they began recording that summer.
A Unique Dwight Opportunity
Ms. Zambetti, who took to heart Dwight’s commitment to support the sparks of genius in faculty and staff as well as students, also shared the concept with Chancellor Spahn. He was intrigued and especially liked the magical aspects of the story, suggesting that the writers rename the piece accordingly. Under the new title of Magic, Misfits, and Mirrors, the Zambettis then presented their musical at the Kennedy Center’s 2018 Page to Stage Festival with professional actors, again to positive reception.
Eager to keep forging ahead, Ms. Zambetti sought Chancellor Spahn’s advice about the next step. His recommendation: share the work with Terry Christgau, Director of Dwight’s Upper School Theater Productions and the Master Theater Program, for his input. When Mr. Christgau came back with notes, his feedback was incorporated.
Fast-forward to last summer, when Mr. Christgau was selecting this year’s Spring Musical. “I always start the process with the seniors in mind and was struck by how Carol Arap and Bernardo Sequeira would be perfect to play the main protagonists. The two lead characters were well suited to their voices, talents, acting ability, and to their chemistry as fellow performers and close friends.”
It was a clear choice and when Mr. Christgau told the Zambettis that he wanted to produce their show, since renamed Stare into the Mirror, they were naturally thrilled. “Seeing the musical fully realized by high school students with scenery, lighting, choreography, and a live band was the most unforgettable experience of our lives,” beams Mr. Zambetti. The show, which has magical elements, came to life thanks to the community, in front of everyone’s eyes, which was the true magic, according to Ms. Zambetti.
“Working with all of the Dwight students was inspiring and the principals were phenomenal. Carol’s character was written for someone way beyond her age; and Bernardo learned magic tricks from a magic consultant. Not only did they take on these difficult roles, but also they were adapting as we rewrote dialogue, music, and lyrics in real time during rehearsals. That’s difficult for anyone, let alone high school students with exams and schoolwork to contend with, but all of the students rose to the occasion.”
Ms. Zambetti was not surprised that the cast and crew exceeded expectations because she sees open-minded students take creative risks and collaborate every day. “It’s in their core as Dwight students,” she notes, speaking as a long-time member of our faculty.
The Director’s Perspective
Terry Christgau knew that he wanted to work on Stare Into the Mirror with choreographer Colleen Durham, someone with whom he has collaborated many times, when assembling the adult professionals for the musical.
Among the Dwight productions Ms. Durham had a hand in was Bye, Bye, Birdie, which marked Bernardo’s first performance in an Upper School show as, yes, a sixth grader! After someone dropped out at the last minute, Mr. Christgau tapped Bernardo to step into his big shoes. He had spotted Bernardo’s innate talent in a Bentley House production and knew that he might just be able to pull it off. Indeed, Bernardo did and he hasn’t stopped acting, singing, and dancing in Dwight productions ever since.
Mr. Christgau was pleased to also have on board Broadway pit musicians to support the very high level of work that the students were doing. They were all charging ahead tirelessly on a compressed schedule during a time when seniors were hearing back from colleges and rehearsals were interrupted by Spring break, so their director was especially delighted that the show came together so beautifully. He, like the Zambettis, feels that there is much to celebrate.
“I couldn’t be more delighted that, in addition to the show having been written by a Dwight faculty member and her husband, our students had the extraordinary opportunity to debut a piece that had never been produced before, while also seeing our team of professionals workshop the piece before their eyes,” shares Mr. Christgau. When something had to be added or removed to the script or music to advance the story, the writers were there to write dialogue or add bars of music on the spot. Students got to witness this firsthand and be a part of decisions that were made, which are now in the production forever. “There was great collaborative energy in the room and students were also a part of it. They questioned a few things at our initial table reads, provided feedback, and helped us adapt the story for high school performers.
With Dwight’s theater resources dedicated to supporting both faculty and students’ sparks of genius, as they were in this production, “there is nothing that we can’t do,” explains Mr. Christgau. “It’s rare for a school to take on a project like this,” he asserts, “but Dwight is both flexible and strong enough to do any kind of work we decide to undertake embracing a community member’s spark. We're not bound to do the same kind of shows in the same kind of spaces every year, and this is one of the reasons why I love being at Dwight.”
“We’ll Never Forget …”
With magic top of mind, the Zambettis refer to Mr. Christgau as “the real magician” in this scenario. They are so grateful to him for taking on what they describe as a difficult score, as well as to Dwight for giving them the unprecedented opportunity to see their work come to fruition. Ms. Zambetti, who served as the Musical Director, Conductor, vocal coach, an orchestrator, and keyboard player for the production, says that the experience left her truly inspired. “I have a new breath of energy from this experience, which I can give to my first, second, third, fourth, and fifth graders. I feel valued and appreciated for this work in addition to what I do in the classroom, and I want to give it right back to my community – to my little ones.”
The cast of Stare Into the Mirror were also grateful, thanking the Zambettis for enabling them to be the first to portray their characters. This unique experience will be something the students will always take with them – and should this show ever end up on Broadway, they’ll be able to say, “I was the first to portray Katy, Montage …”
“For us as well,” says Ms. Zambetti. “We’ll never forget our first Katy, Montage … they were all remarkable!”
Click below to hear from the Zambettis and Mr. Christgau:
Stare into the Mirror Cast
Katy ........................................................................ Carolina Arap ’22
Ensemble: Singers/Dancers/Café Patrons ..........................................
- Performing Arts