On a chilly afternoon last March, 180 Sherwood High School students gather on the stage of the school's auditorium. Opening night of the school's annual Rock 'n' Roll Revival is four days away and there are problems with the closing number.
As the band strikes up James Brown's "Living in America," Laura Portwood, the 31-year-old pregnant choreographer, plasters on a thousand-watt stage smile and flips her curly brown hair metronomically as she leads the group through the Pony, the Mashed Potato, the Watusi, the Grapevine and the Hitchhiker. She appears to be having the time of her life. Meanwhile, most in the group behind her struggle, flailing their arms and looking at each other with expressions of dogged confusion. Clearly, they have missed the soul train.
Gene Orndorff, 58, the show's director for 20 years (and Laura's father), watches agitatedly from a seat in the auditorium, arms folded. "This number hasn't worked yet," he says, mid-song. "My daughter's pregnant and she does this dance better than any of these kids."
This is not what he had in mind when, just minutes earlier, he said, "This show's really on a higher level than a lot of high school shows, and that's what people in the community have come to expect year in and year out." Now he just gazes disapprovingly at the stage, fingering his salt-and-pepper mustache.
Olney, once a rural outpost in northern Montgomery County, succumbed years ago to the suburban development pushing up Georgia Avenue from Silver Spring. But every March for the past three decades, one thing remains the same: This is the month that Sherwood High School stages its 1950s and '60s musical revue, the Rock 'n' Roll Revival. And don't tell anyone here that it's just another high school show.
The nearly 8,000 tickets for this year's seven performances -- which start March 14 -- are long gone. Every year they sell out the day they go on sale.
Former Revival stars return to work behind the scenes. Parents volunteer long after their kids have graduated. Kids at the local elementary schools come to a half-price matinee during the school day and go home dreaming about eventually performing in the show. Parents butter up the music teachers, trying to lock up solos for their would-be stars. At least four other area schools have borrowed the idea and staged their own Revivals. In short, the show has a real hold on people here. And letting go isn't easy.
The View From the Seats Laura Portwood continues working on the big finale that afternoon, issuing stringent directives. "Make sure when you're crossing the stage clapping and skipping, you're singing, smiling and dancing too!" she yells into a microphone. "Practice doing all those things together!" Later, every cast member is given a small flag, thus introducing a whole new set of admonitions such as: "Some of you aren't utilizing your flags! When you're marching, you're waving your flags. We gave you these flags for a reason!"
Then the cast lines up chaotically in the wings to run the curtain call, while the band provides a dissonant soundtrack of tuning guitars, blurting horns, a clanging cowbell. "You're wasting your own time, folks!" Orndorff bellows into a microphone. "This is too big of a cast. Remind me next year: One-fifth! One-fifth the cast!" Dressed in a purple and black warm-up suit, he slowly limps down the aisle and then hobbles up the stairs on the side of the stage. He will be having knee-replacement surgery after the show closes. "Yo!" he yells. "There's no rule that says everyone has to bow!"
The music starts and sextets begin running out to bow. Each group has been instructed to bow and run together down the stairs. Yet almost every bowing chain instead splits in two, with three kids running to the stairs on stage right and three to stage left. "No splitting! You're not splitting!" Portwood cries out. After all 180 have bowed (most incorrectly), the music halts, the kids freeze in the aisles, and Orndorff sighs. "Thank you," he says defeatedly. "We have to rethink this whole section."
Orndorff powwows with the band director. Portwood and her assistant choreographer discuss the home-cooked smorgasbord that parents have assembled in the lobby. The woman who worked on the set and costumes quashes a fashion disaster with a lanky band boy. ("Did you have the gray muscle shirt on yesterday?" she scolds. "Because THAT you CANNOT wear.")
Bill Evans slips in undetected, just in time to miss the botched artistry of the "Living in America" rehearsal. Sherwood's choral director and the revue's vocal director for 22 years, he is attempting what few have successfully accomplished in the show's 31-year history: He is trying to throw in the towel.
Not so easy, considering one look around the room: Laura Portwood and her assistant are both former soloists and dancers. Sue Luksis, the costume woman, had two daughters and a son who were dancers, but she hasn't had a kid in the show since 1996. The woman who runs the box office taught English until 1997, used to sing backup, and is married to a former Rock 'n' Roll band director. And, well, I had my first solo 10 years ago warbling a song Evans picked out -- "A Moment Ago" by the Angels -- wearing a pink polka-dot party dress made by Luksis.
Originally, Evans had planned to stay at the school for a few short years. He arrived at the school with a fresh master's degree from Johns Hopkins's Peabody Conservatory and a budding opera career. Of course, Sherwood had other plans for him.
On this afternoon last March, Evans is relishing his new limited involvement, in which he focuses mainly on the sound system. Indeed, relinquishing control over almost every aspect of the show had left the 48-year-old Evans looking shockingly happy.
Usually Rock 'n' Roll season is a time of high blood pressure punctuated by spasmodic yelling and chair-kicking. (He'd been known to kick his chair a good 20 feet -- clear to the chalkboard at the other end of the choral room -- to quiet a crowd of rowdy singers.) But, now, nestled into a seat in the second row, Evans is calm, only occasionally bothering to rebuke a guitar player for tuning between songs. Asked whether he missed it all, he replies with a tad less melancholy and reflection than might be expected: "And have to worry which kids are sick? And who can't perform? All that responsibility? None of it. I don't miss any of it."
The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll Evans often gets credit for fashioning the Revival into the Vegas-in-the-suburbs it has become. But, the show's actual creator is Sam Andelman, a 55-year-old former Sherwood yearbook sponsor and photography teacher who still designs the T-shirts on sale at each performance and comes to closing night every year.
In 1971 Andelman took his yearbook students to Manhattan on a field trip and got tickets to "The Original Rock 'n' Roll Revival," a Madison Square Garden show that brought back acts like Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson. (Nelson wrote "Garden Party" after getting booed at the Revival.) Andelman decided to repackage the idea with Sherwood kids singing the hits and turn it into a yearbook fundraiser.
The 2002 show grossed about $72,000. The set and technical budgets generally swallow half of that. Just as in athletics, the faculty directors are paid stipends ranging from $2,000 to $4,000. The rest of the money goes to the yearbook, music department and scholarship fund, and last year $12,000 was donated to the Pentagon Relief Fund.
It's clear that Andelman will always feel the show is his baby. "It brings kids out of their shell, it becomes part of their life," he says. "When I go to see it and the final act is over, I still get a tear in my eye."
The first Revival was a modest one-night performance in the school's gym, followed by a sock hop. In 1979, the 25-year-old Evans was recruited, not for his classical music training, but for his guitar prowess and rock-and-roll sensibility. For that year's opening number -- the Surfaris' instrumental "Wipe Out" -- Andelman decided Evans should be carried down the aisle on a stretcher with sirens blaring and a red police light flashing. "Sam was a wacky guy," Evans says. "I was smaller then than I am now, but I was still by no stretch of the imagination a small guy. And they carried me in and got me up onstage and I said, 'Aaaaaaah, wipe out,' " with the proper scale-descending inflection. "Sam knew what he was doing."
Orndorff replaced Andelman in 1981 when he left to start his own T-shirt printing business. "I figured out that, in 12 years, I had raised a quarter of a million dollars for Sherwood, so I thought I'd see what I could raise for myself," Andelman says. When band director Joe Reiff came in 1983, Evans stopped playing guitar onstage and began concocting his own formula for the structure of each 40-song show.
And Orndorff radically changed the look of the show. "All of a sudden, Gene had this whole rock-and-roll Franco Zeffirelli approach to the sets," says Evans, who has lived across the street from Orndorff in Damascus for 20 years. Elaborately sequenced flashing lights and multitiered platforms grew from humble rickety-risers-and-a-bandstand beginnings.
Over the years, the Revival exploded. The shows routinely sold out and the music department began receiving nasty calls from angry fans unable to get tickets. Kids who'd started coming to the Revival when they were in kindergarten began auditioning in droves -- nearly 300 each year. Parents clamored to volunteer to usher, choreograph, design sets or make snacks for long rehearsals. (The cast can consume 11 pounds of pasta in less than an hour.)
Until a few years ago, the worst Evans had to deal with were stage moms besieging the directors with complaints: Why didn't my kid get more solos? My son has sung the national anthem in front of hundreds of people -- how could he not have gotten in? Was my daughter cut because she's fat? There were instances where songs had to be reapportioned to account for the occasional dropout due to pregnancy, drug arrests or underage-drinking citations.
But 2001's show was a doozy. First, a couple of disgruntled back-up singers wrote an anonymous letter to the school paper that accused the directors of giving bigger parts to the siblings of past performers and to kids whose parents volunteered to help with the show. The letter called these parents "slave mommies" because some of them do everything from cooking for rehearsals to ushering at performances to choreographing for the music department. Then there was the e-mailed bomb threat -- later deemed a joke -- before the first performance.
"All the directors used to have a joke years ago that each year it would be one of our years to get the most grief. Somebody would just be out to get one of us," Evans says with a weary laugh. "But as it went on it was my year more and more. And the past four or five years, every year was my year."
During rehearsals for the 2001 show, he broke the news. "I said I'm not doing it next year," he says with another staccato laugh. "I said, 'This is it, Gene. I'd be glad to help you do certain things but I don't want any money. I don't want anything. I'm not directing. You'll have to get somebody else.' "
Orndorff is fond of pointing out that he and Evans have had only one fight in their 21 years of working together: a heated battle over whether to have one drum set or two onstage during Rock 'n' Roll No. 12. As Orndorff recalls, Evans quickly settled it with a swift verbal uppercut: "Just remember who has the master's degree in music around here."
This time, Orndorff didn't argue. "Bill takes setbacks personally, and some of the things that are said and done around the show that are negative really affect him a lot," he says. "I don't want to sound negative, but Bill wanted to be out of the show three years ago. There were some days he was just really moody, not that there's anything wrong with being moody. But he took the joy out of it because he didn't want to be here."
Orndorff had been planning to call it quits himself last year. Then, he felt he had no choice but to stay on. "When Bill resigned everyone said, 'Oh, there's not going to be a show next year,' " he says, mocking the undercurrent of Chicken Little paranoia at the school. "I've fought all year and I've said, 'We are going to have a show. It might be different, but we're going to have a show.' "
"Word got around," Evans says. "People who haven't had kids in the show in years, the dentist's office, the doctor's office. My doctor says, 'You really didn't do it this year, right?' And I said, 'That's right.' "
Orndorff knows it wasn't so painless for his colleague. "He spent a lot of time with us this year and he said many times, 'I don't miss any of this stuff,' " Orndorff says. "And I think to some degree he did. I think if he had had to quit cold turkey it would have been hard."
Talkin' 'Bout My Generation --
And the Next The Willsons are one of the founding families of the Rock 'n' Roll Revival. Allison (nee Jones) and Brian Willson performed in the second Revival in 1972, as did Allison's sister and her sister's future husband. The latter two married and briefly lived outside the area. But they moved back and their two children, now in college, were second-generation Rock 'n' Rollers. Then it was time for Allison and Brian's kids. Last March, 16-year-old Whitney, who had danced in the show for two years, is preparing for her first solo, singing "Back in the USA" by Linda Ronstadt in a made-to-order red, white and blue sequined taffeta miniskirt and top. Her younger sister, Jamie, a freshman, is about to make her Revival debut as a back-up singer.
The hours before opening night are busy ones at the Willson house. Neighbors stop by to pick up tickets. Whitney drives into town to get her new tangerine-color poodle skirt. And Allison plays hooky from her interior decorating job to concentrate on getting the girls ready. By 3 o'clock, Allison has Britney Spears music piping through the house, a casserole in the oven and an ironing board in the foyer, surrounded by pieces of Whitney's 18 costumes, which she's been washing and pressing all day. There are two other poodle skirts, capri pants, letter sweaters, fuzzy sweaters, sparkly disco bell-bottoms, flowing chiffon dresses, knee-length pouf party dresses, and shirts, tank tops and scarves.
Allison has secured tickets to every performance and on the two chalkboards in the kitchen she has written: "Good luck Whitney and Jamie! R 'n' R #31! Break a leg!"
Whitney is self-conscious about her family's long history with the show. "I feel like I got a solo because of my cousins and everyone," she says. "I don't know why I got a solo. I have no idea. I think some people are kind of like, 'Oh, she got it because of her family.' "
Indeed, the two most discussed topics backstage are the distribution of solos and the surprise emergence of Josh Foster. A heartthrob who plays guitar and piano in the band and sings two songs, Foster is, somehow, only now making his debut in the show as a senior. Freshman girls have formed a fan club -- complete with certificates and elected officers -- to worship him. In a cast-wide straw vote, he was singled out as most talented by a landslide, and girls who wouldn't dare go on the record gush under the veil of anonymity: "He's so hot! And he can play instruments that haven't even been invented yet!"
Allison rings a cowbell signaling dinner time. During the meal, Brian talks about his role as Bobby in "Bobby's Girl," the theme of the 1972 Revival. He had no lines, he just had to be the strong, silent object of others' lust -- and he had to be lowered from the rafters wearing angel wings for a quintessential Sam Andelman finale. "I had to project to the audience without speaking or singing," he jokes. "It was the most challenging role." Allison, dishing out pasta and romantic details, chimes in. "We met before the show, we had dated a little bit," she says. "He was the hot dude." She gives him a dreamy look.
"I was . . . Bobby," Brian says pseudo-seductively with a wink.
Still, Brian retains a healthy perspective on the show. "Every year there's one or two numbers that are outstanding. There are five or six that are really good. There are five or six that are really horrible, and the rest are good," he says with a shrug. He prefers to talk about his daughters sharing the stage. "You'll find this when you start having kids: They provide you with entertainment," he says. "That's what's happened for me and it's a great joy. The entertainment is just watching them."
While his wife plans to be at every show, Brian won't.
"Oh, no," he says. "They don't entertain me that much."
But You Can Never Leave By the intermission of opening night, it had already been an eventful evening. The band director had given the cast a pre-show pep talk that started, "I was called corny today because I was so excited I couldn't sleep," which received thunderous cheers because the cast thought he had said "horny." The computer program that ran the lights crashed, erasing all the cues, and was painstakingly re-created by a student technician on the verge of a breakdown. The kid who sang "Living in America" split a seam in his pants. And, not surprisingly, right before Foster went on, a female voice in the audience squealed, "Josh Foster! I want to have your baby!"
Foster is tall and thin with a moptop of short, wavy dark hair, and appropriately soulful eyes. But this is pretty much where the conventions of heartthrobability cease. Josh Foster is a little shy, nervous before performing, and a Jehovah's Witness who didn't perform the past three years partly because he couldn't reconcile the intense rehearsal schedule with his commitment to attend church several times a week. Most of his Saturday afternoons were spent knocking on doors and talking about the Bible with neighbors. He calls himself overrated, and denounces his fan club. "Rock 'n' Roll Revival is weird," he says. He wants to study jazz but doesn't want to become a performer because his father once played in a band. "I don't think it's for me," he says. "The way my dad described it, the lifestyle is not conducive to the way a person should live. And I'm a pretty moral guy."
The irony is that Foster, undeniably the star of the show, would not have auditioned if Bill Evans, who didn't even run the casting process last year, had not discovered that the boy could sing and cajoled him to try out.
Even in a year when he was supposedly "not involved," Evans still managed to shape the show and deliver one of its stars. It wasn't something he could simply stop doing. After the final show, he hinted at how hard it had been to let go. "Some of the days I was very happy," he says. "But other days I just felt weird, like: 'You should be doing this, you've done this for 23 years, you should be feeling this experience right now,' and I wasn't."
A year has now passed, and though Evans had planned to phase himself out of the process, he's actually more involved than last year. He's handling all of the audio work for the new production, mixing the sound for each song during every performance. (Last year, the directors hired a sound technician to do the job.) He did some of the casting and has been on hand for three of the five rehearsals every week, teaching background vocals here, answering musical questions there.
He says he's trying to help ease the transition of a new choral teacher, but it's clear that he wants to be there for himself, too. Last year had certainly been rough. Giving up control meant that he couldn't weigh in with suggestions -- when he tried, others would bristle because it was their show. Now the balance has shifted back just enough. "They're listening to me this year, there's a different feeling," he says after a recent rehearsal. "And since I'm doing all the audio, I'll have total control over what you hear.
"I think I missed it last year. In a certain way, I really did," he can admit now. "I missed it most when I had to sit in the seats and watch it. That was really hard. That was not pleasant. Now I realize it would be very difficult not to help."