High school play gets guidance from Broadway pro

Sophie Hearn (right), who plays Bat Boy, runs through a church scene during a rehearsal. Hearn, 16, and her sister Emma, 17, plan to study theater in college.
Sophie Hearn (right), who plays Bat Boy, runs through a church scene during a rehearsal. Hearn, 16, and her sister Emma, 17, plan to study theater in college.
Posted: March 06, 2014

The Broadway producer and casting director was coaching Germantown Academy students on the care and feeding of his Bat Boy: The Musical.

The show is equal parts comedy and camp, but Dave Clemmons, who coproduced the original Off-Broadway hit, was telling his Fort Washington Bat Boy about the power of a well-timed pause.

"Hold. Hold it. Beat," said Clemmons, 49.

Then Sophie Hearn, 16, who is playing the half-human/half-bat lead, whispered a quiet "Thank you," evoking a poignant moment.

With that, Clemmons had helped the students understand the spirit of a musical whose cave-dwelling protagonist is the product of a bat attack.

"When you read it on paper, it doesn't come off as it's supposed to," Clemmons said.

So Clemmons made sure the school's 129-year-old Belfry Club theater group saw, amid the laughs, a Bat Boy longing for acceptance.

Coaching from a Broadway pro affiliated with the original production is hardly typical for a high school musical, said Mark Zortman of York, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Educational Theater Association, a student and teacher arts group.

But on Feb. 25, Clemmons was in the 500-seat auditorium at the private independent school, coaxing ferocious gospel out of 17-year-old Ebony Rhodes.

Clemmons made the trip down from New York City because of his connection to Hearn and her sister, Emma, 17, who are both preparing to study acting and theater in college.

Clemmons is a guru of sorts. He is a casting director who has picked the actors for Broadway productions, including Driving Miss Daisy and The Boy From Oz, and served as a coproducer/investor in Tony-winning fare such as Once and Spring Awakening.

Clemmons also leads a program that helps students shape their auditions for bachelor of fine arts programs, a gruelingly competitive exercise.

The Hearn sisters are in the program, and they told K. Richardson, the show's director, and Charles Masters, Germantown Academy's Upper Schools performing arts chair, about Clemmons. When the performing arts faculty discovered that Clemmons was also an original coproducer of the show the school had already planned to perform on March 14 and 15, it seemed like, well, kismet.

"You feel the sense of continuity in the theater, which is all about collaboration," Richardson said.

The show, an offbeat selection, is somewhat typical of a school that will present Urinetown, Oklahoma!, Spring Awakening, and Sweet Charity.

"We don't really think about whether the show will sell tickets," Masters said. The show selection "is based on the philosophy of the individual director."

So Richardson chose Bat Boy: The Musical, show unseen, because she "fell in love" with its rock music score, and it fit into her casting options, given the club's talents and gender makeup.

Then Clemmons fell into the mix.

"A lot of schools and companies won't touch this show," Clemmons said. Some of it is "a little racy and a little odd. But the adaptation Germantown is doing has the racier stuff smoothed over."

Clemmons talked with students about the history of the show's creation and how some of the original actors played specific scenes.

"He brings up things you would never think of," Emma Hearn said moments after Clemmons coached her sister in mining the comedic potential of bat gibberish. Clemmons had been guiding the four principals - Sophie and Emma Hearn, Nate Mann, and Erica Nicole Rothman (Bat Boy, his mother, his father, and sister) - in a scene about Bat Boy learning to read.

"Yeah, it's strange, but it's fun," Mann, 17, said of the show.

Each of the principals wants to be a professional actor. Mann sees Death of a Salesman in his future. Rothman, 18, dreams of playing Val in A Chorus Line, even though she says her dance skills aren't Broadway worthy.

The experience with Clemmons fuels that hunger.

"This makes it real to them," Richardson said. "They see [through Clemmons] that theater can be a living. This can be their life."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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