Toby Gittelman
(Stacy Gittleman)

Read Stacy Gittleman’s first entry in the Back-to School diaries.

A musical theater-loving kind in the time of COVID.

The other day I came home from an errand to find my son in the backyard angrily swearing up a storm about his mother. Intently giving direction from several feet away as he rehearsed one of four monologues for college auditions was New York theatrical director and Andover High School alumna Katherine M Carter. She’s been working in New York theater for over a decade but for now teaches live and online acting as her theatrical projects are on hold.

On Sunday mornings, I’ll hear him singing from the basement as he takes a Zoom lesson with Christine Tang, another Andover alumna, who is helping him select and prepare his musical cuts. Of course, he would prefer to be standing at the end of her grand piano in her Bloomfield Hills home. But for now, lessons continue online.

Sometimes, he’ll dance in the family room, one of the few places in the house with a high ceiling and without a carpet as he practices choreography for dance pre-screenings. He takes in-person private dance lessons in a Birmingham studio. Before his first lesson, he had to sign a liability waiver about COVID.

Toby Gittleman
Stacy Gittleman

To help pay for all this, on many mornings you’ll find Toby weeding and mulching and mowing around the neighborhood.

When preparing for musical theater college auditions, all the world, or all the house, is a stage. In addition to grades and college entrance exam scores, perspective performing arts students must also prepare choreography, monologues and cuts from songs to demonstrate the breadth of their talents.

That repertoire has been a challenge to build up in a year when scientists and researchers have deemed that performing in groups is one of the riskiest activities one can partake when it comes to the spread of COVID. It has been a year of missed opportunities and canceled productions. For right now, Toby is preparing for auditions for a career that in practical terms will be dark for the foreseeable future.

But while the pandemic quashed many opportunities, it opened others. In normal times, would he have had a New York director going over a monologue with him in his backyard? Earlier in the summer, he virtually danced with cast members from Haddestown and Hamilton at another online camp based in New York City.

As the fall approaches, he’s created a makeshift basement recording studio. From the money we will be saving by (most likely) not traveling for in-person auditions, we’ve invested in ring lighting and a higher-end microphone to make the best possible pre-screening videos.

Since the fifth grade, Toby has told us that he wants a career on Broadway. It was not a passing whim, and his passion has only grown stronger. Even as he sees his older friends temporarily withdraw from their college programs because they have moved completely online, he is not deterred.  He will work and take his general education classes locally until he can go away to school when in-person instruction returns. Because live theater, he knows, will return.

After all, as his acting coach Katherine reminded him on his first lesson, theater has survived the bubonic plague. It will also survive COVID.


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