It’s a Broadway hit with great music that speaks to contemporary ideas of equality and justice — no, not “Hamilton,” but “The Pajama Game.” At PS 100 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, 5th-graders performed the musical under the direction of music teacher MaryAnn Spinner and dance teacher Kim Wojcieszek, who formed a dynamic tag team.
The play is a memorable end-of-year event for the 5th-graders, but the teaching pair also sees it as a chance to launch students into middle school with the confidence that stage performance can endow even the shyest student.
Wojcieszek, who choreographs the school’s annual play, sees the transformation every year. “They begin the school year a little shy and timid,” she said. “After January, they’re different children.”
The two teachers start looking for the right play in August. In past years, they’ve selected such Broadway classics as “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music.” Spinner said this year they chose “The Pajama Game,” which won the Tony Award for best musical in 1955, because the plot involving union members in a pajama factory is still relevant today. “It’s about factory workers who work very hard and want a raise,” she said. “They fight to get it, including staging work slowdowns and rallies.”
After they choose the year’s play, the two teachers get to work condensing it and making it age-appropriate. Romantic intrigue is considerably edited. Students are introduced to the songs first; once they’re familiar with the music, the dance numbers are introduced. An instrumental CD is used for the show, but the vocals are all student voices. When a student shows outstanding talent, Spinner and Wojcieszek often write in a solo for the child to perform.
Families flock to the end-of-year event. There’s not an empty seat in the 530-seat house for the official performance.
Spinner oversaw all facets of the play’s production before Wojcieszek arrived nine years ago. “I was doing it for 20 years,” Spinner said. “The principal asked me, ‘How can I support you?’ I told her, ‘Hire a dance teacher.’”
Principal Katherine Moloney sees the show as integral to the school’s mission — PS 100 is a magnet school of media arts and communication. “Students here start performing as early as kindergarten, doing stage recitations and understanding theater and audience,” Moloney said.
The school of 730 students draws largely from the Russian immigrant community of Brighton Beach, and sometimes Spinner and Wojcieszek have to explain a colloquialism or a phrase in the play that is no longer in common use.
“We have to work on literal language,” Wojcieszek said. “For example, the phrase ‘I had a ball.’ Some of our students might take that literally.”
Every 5th-grader — 109 are in the class this year — is involved in the play, including the 5th-graders in a District 75 school that occupies a floor at PS 100. Three students in Tamara Chekalov’s District 75 class are involved in the dance scenes, and she stood in the back during the rehearsal watching them. “In the beginning, they were worried about the dances. I told them, ‘Don’t worry; you can learn.’ They do very well.”
Each production has a number of crucial off-stage roles, from raising the curtain to managing props, microphones and the music. These roles allow students to participate if they don’t have the performing bug.
As the students gain confidence, they take a bigger part in shaping the production.
“During the rehearsals, they’ll tell us, ‘I think this would be better this way’ and we listen to them,” Spinner said. “A lot of things in the play are their ideas.”
By including the children’s ideas in the production, Wojcieszek explains, “We give them ownership of the play. It’s about making every child feel he or she is special, even in ensemble. We’re cheerleaders for them all year long.”
During a rehearsal in the auditorium two weeks before the May 25 performance, it’s clear the students have embraced the rhythms and responsibilities of a musical production. As soon as Spinner sits down at the piano and begins to play scales, the animated hubbub of students chattering with each other dissolves into something magical: students vocalizing in the appropriate key.
At the end of rehearsal, students practiced their curtain calls with crisp bows and big smiles.
“When they graduate, they’re not afraid of anything,” Spinner said with a smile.