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Mr. F- Musical Extraordinaire
I sat down with Mr. F last week, discussing his latest original musical, Airheart, and his career at this school. In his office, there is a wall devoted completely to the posters of musicals he has produced. A daunting number. The main point he tried to get across is that each musical he puts on is much more than that. Each show has underlying meaning, and while many people see just the façade, the show delves much deeper than that. Putting on a show is not a small feat, but for someone with as much skill and experience as Mr. Frey, he makes it seem like it’s just another day on the job.
JG: How long have you been teaching?
BF: I’ve been teaching for 34 years.
JG: How many instruments do you play?
BF: My primary instrument was French horn. I thought I was going to be a band director. I can play French horn and trumpet, French horn being my major instrument, and always played piano. I play all sorts of keyboards and synthesizers, but that’s all I really play.
JG: Where did you get the inspiration for your three musicals?
BF: The first one, Whammy, was from a music business magazine. I wanted to do something with the business of music. The title of the show was originally Grammy, but we legally couldn’t use it. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences wouldn’t let us, so I just changed the name to Whammy. Tiananmen was from a picture. I was in China in 1984 in Beijing, and I actually went to Tiananmen Square. It has be y’know two square miles, this big open spot. When the Tiananmen uprising occurred in China in 1989, I was very familiar with the territory. At the time, Miss Saigon was out, and Miss Saigon was inspired by a picture of an Vietnamese child being given away by a parent so it can be free, get out of Vietnam, and I sort of took the same path. There was a picture of a student holding an attaché case standing in the middle of the road in Tiananmen Square in front of a row of tanks, and that was a famous picture. He was just standing there, and I said, “Boy, I can create a musical around that.” Actually, the picture inspired the musical. As far as Airheart, I read a book in 1998 which came out in 1997 by Jane Mendelson called I Was Amelia Airheart. It was a great little story, sort of a love story, and I always thought it’d make a nice idea for a musical. That was the first inspiration for Airheart. I read the book a couple of times, gave it to a lot of people, and nothing really happened to it. I tried again with Julia, and it did happen. Our story is a little bit different, not the same as the book, but that was the inspiration.
JG: How was working with Julia Edelman?
BF: I love Julia Edelman. Quote me. She’s amazing. She is the most magnificent student I’ve ever worked with. She has charm, she has maturity, she has vision, and she has creativity. I never at any time felt like I was working with a student; I felt like I was working with a colleague. And in our little world of after-school, she upheld that end. She was like another teacher.
JG: What emotions did you try to convey with the music?
BF: The themes and melodies were actually over five or six years old that I’ve had in my mind for a while. Some were spontaneous songs that I wrote on the fly. I said, “Oh man, we need a song doing this.” Most of my writing concurs during the evening hours, sitting at a piano and I sort of just zone out. But then again, when you work with a lyricist, you need to match a song to the words, words to a song. There’s a lot of songs in Airheart that never happened. It’s sort of like an equilibrium. A lot of the songs were developed on schedule while we were writing, and I matched them to the words, and she matched some of the lyrics to my melodies, which I’ve had for many, many years. I had all this stuff swirling in my head. Usually I record them [the melodies]. I just leave them on a computer, before I forget them, because I will forget melodies. That’s sort of the process of it. The orchestrations are different. They had to be done in a five to seven week period. We started orchestrations probably in October, while I was doing Tommy. I had to get it ready so I could print out the pit parts, and so we could have the tracks recorded so we could do the CD. I actually was doing that stuff until the final days of recording. Nothing ever stopped. Orchestrations were always occurring, songs were always occurring, lyric changes were always occurring, and of course the script.
JG: How do you think it went?
BF: I thought it was outstanding. In my wildest dreams, I never thought the show would have a run. Look, when you do something originally, you’re gonna have snafus, you’re gonna have things that just don’t go well. Some things work, some things don’t work. Y’know, when you’re watching it you realize, well this is not perfect; I can rewrite this and make it better. But on the whole, and we had a nice audience, all the shows were very well attended and very well supported by the school in general. By the parents, the teachers, even students came. I would call it a wonderful experience and successful. The recording of our CD, which is currently out there in the market, is something that will live on. Airheart wasn’t just about the performance, it was about the CD, it was about that there was something else going on at the same time when we were recording this. It was the best out of the three. I enjoyed doing Airheart the most.
JG: Do you have any more ideas for future musicals?
BF: I do, actually. I don’t want to give out the name, because I don’t want anyone stealing it. I would like to write a light, musical comedy. Something that’s funny, something that’s not so serious. I have something in the line of a Little Shop of Horrors kind of thing that I could do.
JG: Do you see that happening at any point in the near future?
BF: Depends how lazy I am. If I get myself going, it depends on having someone who can write comedy. I need a writer. I need someone who can actually do it. It always depends on me finding a collaborator, because I can’t do it by myself. I’m not a lyricist, nor a playwright. I can come up with scenarios and ideas for shows and orchestra and music, but I cannot write.
JG: What importance do you see in taking musical courses in high school, and what effect do you believe it has in the long run?
BF: I think that anyone who takes a performing art gets to express themselves musically and it stimulates another part of their brain. It gives you another insight into things that an academic student doesn’t partake in, and you have an advantage. I’d like to see the school offer more courses in music, as musical theory, where we are way behind in. There are kids in other high schools who actually can pass a college entrance theory test, and our students do struggle with that. I would support performance, guitar, keyboard lessons. But we’re in tough economic times, so it’s probably not feasible.
JG: If you could come out of RHS with one thing accomplished, what would it be?
BF: I guess at any job you want to be remembered. I would like to be remembered for how the Royal Crown Players is such an establishment now. And how productions are for high school students Broadway caliber. Let’s be honest, it’s not Broadway, it’s a school. But it’s a very serious facility, and a serious production company. Students are amazingly talented, musicians are amazingly talented. Set crew, business people. It’s amazing what we do. It’s a million clubs combined. It’s stagecraft, it’s hammering, nails, business, music, acting. It’s one big hula base of art. And I just want to be remembered for establishing it and continuing a club that’s been around since 1941.
JG: You are an accomplished marathon runner. What values overlap between teaching and marathon running?
BF: Persistence. When you are running a marathon and you hit mile 20, you feel like “That’s it, I’m done.” But you have to keep on going. You picture the finish line, you picture that bottle of water, and the medal around your neck, and you picture what happens at the end. And that rings true for anything in the arts. In a concert, you want to get to that final song, the final production of a show, you want to get to the curtain call. You want it to conclude. You’re always looking at the finish line. It’s very, very similar, and just as tiring.
JG: What is your favorite thing about being a teacher here?
BF: The students. Both in school, and when they graduate. Having close relationships and friendships with students both in school and out of school, when they’re adults. And watching their careers grow.