Dim the lights: No musical for CAPA

Johnny Whaley Jr., principal of the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, gives student Aunyae Dwight a hug for her 17th birthday.
Johnny Whaley Jr., principal of the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, gives student Aunyae Dwight a hug for her 17th birthday. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 27, 2013

Money is so tight in the Philadelphia School District that the unthinkable has happened. For the first time in 17 years, CAPA - the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the district's arts gem on South Broad Street - cannot afford to put on a musical.

"I was shocked and upset," said Jack Schmieg, a freshman vocal major at Oberlin College in Ohio who starred as Jean Valjean in CAPA's production of Les Misérables last year. "I couldn't imagine not having a musical. . . . I was in the musical every year at CAPA, and it was the highlight of every year for me and everybody else that participated."

Senior Daniel Wisniewski was disappointed, too. He played Javert in Les Mis and had expected to audition for an even bigger role this spring.

"I feel bad for all the other seniors," he said. "This was going to be our year."

But disappointment turned to disbelief when they heard that a new performing-arts charter high school that the School Reform Commission approved last year planned to buy GlaxoSmithKline's former North American headquarters at 16th and Vine Streets for $29 million.

"Really?" said Wisniewski, who will major in theater at Ithaca College in the fall. "And we can't get a musical?"

Schmieg said, "Something is terribly wrong with the system if a new performing arts school can be approved by the SRC and CAPA can go unnoticed without a musical this year. CAPA really is a diamond in the crown of the School District."

CAPA parents promise that the show will go on in 2014: the home and school association is setting up an endowment to provide permanent funding for the musical and other projects.

"This is the only long-term solution," said Harry J. Levant, incoming president of the parents' group.

The effort has taken on greater urgency now that CAPA and other district schools have been told that their budgets will be slashed by 25 percent for the next school year.

CAPA was created in 1978 as a desegregation program that would attract arts students from across the city. It enrolls 729 students who prepare for college while focusing on creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, vocal music, or visual arts.

Students must audition for the coveted spots. Johnny Whaley Jr., CAPA's veteran principal, said the school receives 3,000 applications a year and holds about 1,300 auditions for 200 openings.

Alums include ?uestlove and Black Thought of the Roots, the members of Boyz II Men, the jazz bassist Christian McBride, and the actor Mark Webber.

Last week, CAPA's jazz band worked with the trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. Dance students performed seven numbers in the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Washington this month. And Thursday night, the choir and orchestra performed Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor.

"Most schools don't have arts programs like this," Whaley said. "Actually, no schools have arts programs like this."

Whaley, who will retire in June, said that even without a musical, CAPA students have plenty of performance opportunities this spring: two nights of vocal performances, two nights of dance, an instrumental concert, and a jazz cafe.

"We have enough events for 10 schools," he said.

But Whaley, who arrived at CAPA in 1993 and has been principal since 2002, agreed that the decision to forgo a musical this year disappointed many.

"I've explained to my staff. I've explained to the students," he said. "We're in an era of change."

When CAPA was preparing to mount Elton John's Aida in 2011, Whaley said the regional superintendent told him it would be the last time the district provided funds for the musical. The tab of $65,000 to $70,000 covers performance rights, costumes, professional sets, and overtime for teachers who work late for weeks of rehearsals.

"In an age where the focus is on high-stakes testing, when you look at a school that spends that amount for a musical that lasts a few nights, people who don't live this life don't see the value in that," Whaley said.

The musical was never a line item in the school's budget. But Whaley said the school used to have more discretionary funds, as well as desegregation money it could tap for teacher overtime.

"We had zero last year," Whaley said, adding that he lost $350,000 in desegregation money.

Last year, CAPA's home and school association stepped in and landed a $82,500 grant from the William Penn Foundation in time for Les Mis.

The parents' group could not pull off a similar miracle this time. It late March it decided CAPA would not put on a musical this spring.

"Our cupboard has run bare," said Levant, now a vice president of parents' group. He said the association has been covering other expenses the school can no longer afford, including electric bills to keep the building open after school, buses for students to attend auditions, and utility bills for the light board in the auditorium.

Levant and Melody Damis, the assistant treasurer, said pulling the plug on the musical was a tough call.

"It is an all-school event," said Damis. "This is truly the sort of one big moment when everyone comes together."

But instead of scrambling again to raise money for the musical, the group decided to find a long-term solution that would support the musical and other projects that benefit students in CAPA's six artistic disciplines.

The William Penn grant that aided Les Mis in 2012 also included $40,000 for the parents to hire a consultant to create an alumni database and help develop an endowment plan.

The association hired Fairmount Ventures Inc., a local firm that assists nonprofits.

The parents plan to work on the endowment over the summer and introduce it at CAPA's back-to-school night in the fall to ensure money is in hand for the musical and other projects in 2013-14.

"The hope is there will be a few corporate citizens who are interested in children and in the arts who will step up and play leading roles early on," Levant said.

"The fact that the musical has been deferred this year does not sit well with the parent community," he said. "The good part of this is, it's a call to arms and a call to action."

He added: "We believe the climate is right to raise funds for CAPA. And, frankly, this may be the only way the school is going to survive."

Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com

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