If You Like the College, You'll Love the Show
By Joe Levine
Let’s face it, there isn’t much fun at most fundraisers. Friends of the institution dutifully purchase high-priced seats and tables, then give them away to friends. The guests digest drinks and dinners along with some weighty speeches and maybe a song or two by a celebrity. Checkbooks come out, thanks are proffered, and the place empties out midway through dessert.
TC’s 125th anniversary gala in November put the fun back in fundraisers.
“TC is such an amazing place, with so many great people doing extraordinary things, that we had to have an event to match,” says Suzanne Murphy, Vice President for Development and External Affairs. “But also, because we’re Teachers College, we know that having people lecture at an audience is not the best way to get your material across. So we wanted to something that would really engage our guests.”
Hence, the choice of venue: Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. And hence the expanded guest list, which included TC students, faculty and staff, as well as alumni leaders across a spectrum of fields, .
The show itself was a Broadway-style extravaganza that somehow managed to compress TC’s historical highlights, current groundbreaking work, and recognition of five big-time honorees into 45 minutes of song, dance and other magic.
How did it all come together?
Keeping costs to a minimum was a top priority, so Murphy’s first move was to turn to Lori Custodero, Professor of Music and Music Education, for creative guidance. Custodero, in turn, reached out to her colleagues at About Entertainment (AE), a Los Angeles-based booking and production agency that specializes in shows about institutions. AE quickly assembled a director and cast (including some TC ringers) with top-drawer credits experience (director Andrew Palermo had previously helmed Kristin Chenoweth at Carnegie Hall and acted in the original Broadway productions of Wicked and the revival of Annie Get Your Gun) and rehearsed them for a solid week. And from mid-September through early November, Murphy and Custodero led a small TC group led by, in conferencing weekly by phone with AE’s creative team, providing a steady download of stories, photographs, videos, signage and historical documents from the College’s archives. The AE team – whose head writer was TC alumnus Scott Cameron (see accompanying story), a veteran of Sesame Street, Electric Company and other education shows – responded with draft after draft of the show’s script.See the performance at TC Gala:
There were some dicey moments, including a last-minute substitute producer and a tetchy sound system. Still, the result was something that not only educated the audience of 600 people about TC, but also succeeded as genuinely lively entertainment. The show opened with the full nine-member cast singing “Happy Birthday, Teachers College” in different languages. Next came four sections – titled “Flourish,” “Access,” “Innovation” and “Imagination” – that each highlighted work central to the College and to one of the honorees.
In “Flourish,” two characters chatted about TC psychologist Edmund Gordon’s vision of supplementary education, TC’s partnership schools in Harlem and the College’s launch of the first program in spirituality and psychology. Following a performance by the Voxare String Quartet, led by TC alumna Emily Ondracek-Peterson, of an original composition titled “Pannonia Boundless,” honoree James Comer, the legendary Yale school reformer and TC Trustee, came out on stage to speak about the beliefs that have driven his career.
“Being on the Teachers College Board has had special meaning to me,” Comer said, “in part because my life and work experience has been in line with the mission of Grace Dodge, other founders and leaders, and the work of the college today.”
In the “Access” section, the song “Hot Lunch” from the musical Fame became “Fresh Lunch” to honor philanthropist and TC Board Vice Chair Laurie Tisch, whose Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund has enabled the city to place hundreds of green carts with fresh produce in many “food desert” neighborhoods.
“Like all of you here tonight I believe every New Yorker deserves the chance to live in a healthy, productive life,” Tisch said. “Thank for helping me plant new seeds of access and opportunity here at Teachers College.”
To honor GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt, whose company funded TC’s partnerships with Harlem public schools in 2008, Associate Professor of Science Education Christopher Emdin led a group of high school students in rapping about innovation. And in perhaps the evening’s most moving moment, singer Tony Bennett, who was being honored along with his wife, TC alumna Susan Benedetto, for their support of art education, surprised everyone with an impromptu a capella rendition of the song “Imagination.”
After the full cast sang the Bennett classic, “The Best is Yet to Come,” TC President Susan Fuhrman launched the College’s new campaign, “Where The Future Comes First.” The entire audience then flooded the stage to dance into the late hours.
For Murphy, the evening was a success in ways that went far beyond raising $1.4 million for student scholarships.“The experience of packaging Teachers College as a show made all of us think a lot harder about the messages that really matter and how to say them in fresh and compelling ways,” she says. “The emotional response from the audience told me we were successful – but even more, that TC itself retains a powerful hold on the hopes and aspirations of so many people. Bravo!”