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It was no accident that West Side Story was the very first TYA summer musical. The late 1960s were difficult years to be a teen. Political assassinations, race riots, and street demonstrations were unraveling the social fabric. War in Vietnam daily claimed young American lives, while a full-blown counterculture of drugs was seeping into suburban neighborhoods.
This troubled atmosphere prompted town resident Mary Keane in 1968 to try to find something positive for Trumbull teens to do during summer break. After researching youth activities in neighboring towns, she invited to her living room a handful of interested youth leaders to talk about launching a teen theater program the following summer.
“It was a trip of faith,” says Keane of those early days when the tiny budget was more than balanced by enormous enthusiasm. “We hired the best director, music director and choreographer and set off to produce a play.”
Parents’ closets were rummaged for costumes, volunteers from the Trumbull Women’s Club hosted cast parties, and church halls were opened for rehearsals and planning sessions. The Pinewood Lake Association’s theater loaned flats, stage sets and lights from its collection, while local newspapers gave print space to generate enthusiasm. Civic groups, businesses and political organizations opened their hearts and their pockets; and the show happened.
It was hot and humid that August evening when the curtains rose on West Side Story. But, as Keane recalls, when the final scene was played, “the audience leapt to its feet in a spontaneous standing ovation, and we knew we had created something fantastic!”
Forty-one TYA summer musicals have been staged since 1969, and participants across all four decades echo similar praises. “It was a wonderful way to spend a summer,” says Nancy Drake Busch, who played Maria in that first production, “People were amazed at what was accomplished.” “I made friends with kids from all over Trumbull and all different ages,” says Patti Pancoast Early, who began her TYA career in the 1973 Guys and Dolls, continued with Oklahoma, and came back as costume director for On the Town, “It made me feel more comfortable going into high school.” For Jeff Wright II, who acted in Once Upon a Mattress, Me and My Girl, and Babes in Arms (1999 to 2001) and returned as associate producer of the 2003 revival of Hello Dolly, “TYA gave me an opportunity to explore and develop my singing and acting skills as well as my leadership and organizational abilities.” Like many TYA graduates, Jeff and his brother Michael are now musical theater professionals.
The same desire to support local teens that inspired Mary Keane moved MaryJoan Wright and Merial Cornell to step forward as today’s TYA producers. Long-time TYA parents and behind-the-scene volunteers, Wright and Cornell believe in the importance of TYA. “Everyone who has worked on the shows knows the enormous teaching opportunities they present,” says Wright, “essential life skills—teamwork, presence, appreciation for the creative process—and learning how to ‘build the magic’ of a show from the bottom up.”
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