Act I - Ship of Dreams

Eight times a week, the “Ship of Dreams” wentdown at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. And at every performance during the first year of the run of Titanic, the 1997 Tony Award winning musical, audiences shared the event with the passengers and crew of the doomed luxury liner — among them, Mara Stephens ’91, who made her Broadway debut in the role of Bellboy.

After college roles in Royall Tyler productions, Stephens arrived in New York in 1991 and for the next five years took a variety of off-Broadway roles. In early 1996, after appearing in the SoHo Rep’s Obie Award winning production Wally’s Ghost, Stephens was called for a musical workshop on the Titanic disaster. Noting that she “did not consider myself a musical actor,” she cancelled the audition. Four months after the first offer, another one came. Still no interest. Then in December 1996, Stephens was asked to audition for a specific role in the production. “When I got there, I was a little surprised. I mean, the bellboy? He had one line: ‘Dinner seating for Thursday, April 11th is now being served in the first class dining saloon,’ recalls Stephens in a British accent. “It was all very exciting, though and they liked my dialect.” She was cast.

As the show changed substantially during rehearsals, the Bellboy came to appear in all of the ensemble numbers, ten scenes, more lines, and, was given a name: Edward.

“The cast was fabulous — a great family. Each night we would go through this experience together,” says Stephens. “One night, the ship didn’t sink. That was a problem.” They had to refund the house and ask everyone to come back for another show. The sincerest form of flattery was paid to Stephens in the first year of the run — Edward the Bellboy was parodied in the 1997 Forbidden Broadway review and has become a permanent part of the show.
“I feel incredibly lucky that I am doing theater,” says Stephens, who chose to leave Titanic after the first year. “I want to keep challenging myself. Stay inspired and focused on the craft of acting.”


Grease is the Word

To an audience, every night is opening night. The first appearance of the conductor, framed by a single spot, can set the tone for the rest of the evening.

“I found myself trying to enjoy the experience while it was happening,” says Steven Freeman of conducting the Broadway musical Grease on opening night. Over a hundred other opportunities to conduct would come along before the show closed its four-year run on Broadway. But that night was memorable. It was the first.

“It is incredibly rewarding, but hard work to keep yourself fresh and excited,” he says, admitting that actors and musicians have to fight complacency. “Eight shows a week is hardly glamorous. It’s more or less a job for the musicians, so you can pace yourself. Actors face the grind. Not everyone has the stamina for a long run.”

Freeman’s run started the first day he walked into UVM’s Royall Tyler Theatre in 1974, a few months before the theatre opened. “I was assistant music director of The Contrast,” he says. “I recall the decision to rehearse the first number and I looked around and realized that there wasn’t a music director; I was it.” That first show, the rehearsals and the performance, convinced Freeman that this was something he was destined to do.

Last summer Freeman worked on a revival of Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade with Tommy Tune and Sandy Duncan. The schedule was exhausting: 10 – 6, six days a week — in preparation for a backer’s audition. He continues to perform regularly with Duncan, her husband Don Correia, and Guy Stroman in a Broadway review with symphony orchestras around the country.

Freeman’s secret to a long run in the business? “Do the work. Take the lessons. Learn about the business of show business. Sustain yourself in theater through study and keep looking for the next opportunity.”


ACT III - Hakuna Matata

Lion King: The Broadway Musical was born in New York, at the same Broadway rehearsal facility as Titanic. For Michele Steckler ’86, associate producer for the musical, memories of that birth resemble pieces of a puzzle — a dance room; a puppet room; costume fittings; production meetings; an amazing creative, collaborative energy recalled with pleasure.
Steckler, whose office overlooks the heart of New York’s theater district, has career credits that include stage managing more than twenty productions all over the world.
In her sophomore year, Steckler decided her passion was not on the stage, but in front of it. Stage managing The Shadowbox, led to Hair. “There were no classes in stage managing. It was learn by doing. I had people years later tell me about huge theater departments or BFA programs where they weren’t able to do as much hands-on.”
Following UVM, an internship with the American Repertory Theater in Boston was a stepping stone to stage managing a European touring company. Other tours would follow to Japan, Australia, throughout the U.S. and Canada, in which Steckler worked with many of theater’s top directors.
Collaboration is key in the theater, according to Steckler. “You are forced to collaborate; to share and interact with people in a very, very intense and close way. You learn to deal with people who have different needs, and, you learn to help people fulfill their individual goals.”
Admitting to working all the time, Steckler does like to travel around a tour date and creates personal time when she can. She is very close to her two sisters and parents. “My family unconditionally, unilaterally supported me in anything that I have ever wanted to do — which to me is the greatest gift one could ever get.”
Last summer, Michelle was off to Tokyo where, in late December 1998, Lion King opened to a new audience. For anyone who enjoys the theater, Lion King is the ultimate gift. n