STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Running To Meet The Kids

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Running To Meet The Kids There probably never was a kid who said, "When I grow up, I'm gonna be a child-wrangler!" But nevertheless, any child could, for such a profession exists.
Ron Leibman and Christopher Evan Welch in Adam Baum and the Jew Movie.
Ron Leibman and Christopher Evan Welch in Adam Baum and the Jew Movie. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

There probably never was a kid who said, "When I grow up, I'm gonna be a child-wrangler!" But nevertheless, any child could, for such a profession exists.

"Child-wranglers" is theatrical parlance for Childrens' Guardians -- those who are in charge of the kids who appear on Broadway. They can be found working every show that has underage performers in its cast.

Bobby Wilson first heard about child-wrangling in 1989, when his longtime companion, actor Andy Gale, was in Chicago doing Les Miserables. "It was our 15th anniversary," he recalls, "and we were lamenting that we weren't spending enough time together. Andy mentioned that this position was available. No one else wanted it anyway," he jokes.

After two years with the show, Wilson wrangled 14 kids for Four Baboons Adoring the Sun. Next came a two-year international tour of The Secret Garden (four kids), before working in New York with Carousel and Show Boat (five kids each). He cut down to three with Twelve Dreams, but ballooned to 11 with Big. Then there was the Washington run of Whistle down the Wind.

"Twelve kids, ages eight to 14," says Vanessa Brown, who's assisted Wilson on four shows. "They were told only after what turned out to be the final performance that they weren't going to Broadway, and have a nice party. The kids broke down and cried. The adults broke down and cried." But both Wilson and Brown landed at the Martin Beck, anyway, as child wranglers for the six youngest Trapp children in The Sound of Music.

They're there 45 minutes before the performance, to meet the parents or guardians who, at the stage door, will hand over their kids to them for the next four-plus hours. Wilson and Brown take the 11 boys and girls, both understudies and regulars, to four fourth floor suite of dressing rooms -- "and," says Wilson with a bit more pride than he might realize, "the Glamorous Guardian Lounge," as he tabs a fifth dressing room. "With space so tight on Broadway, we're lucky to have a place where we can put a TV, VCR, Sony play station, keyboard, and a slew of games."

Wranglers must make certain that kids eat no chocolate before the show. "That's all we need," moans Wilson, "to have them enter in their white sailor suits with big brown stains." For that matter, not even all varieties of hard candies are allowed. "Lime ones leave big green marks on their tongues," Wilson says, who dispenses more benignly colored watermelon flavored treats.

Thirty minutes before the performance, when a buzzer signals it's time for vocal warm-up, Wilson grabs his modestly sized bullhorn and rallies his troops to go see musical director Michael Rafter. He and Brown watch as the kids do ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah vocal exercises, before they segue into the show's title song and "The Lonely Goatherd."

One young girl clutches Brown and hugs her close while she sings. This will be a bad night for her, because she just learned that she lost a close relative. Last week, another girl's great-grandfather died. "When a kid is upset about something," Brown says, "we have to be there for moral support."

She rallies the kid enough to get her ready for the braid-wig fitting, where everyone is checked to see that the head mikes are correctly placed. Brown actually does their make-up, following the template that's been set by the designer. As she does, she recounts that before becoming a wrangler, she was a per-diem substitute teacher in the South Bronx. She then became a tutor with Show Boat and Twelve Dreams, where she met Wilson. "And when I found there was a job that didn't involve math," she says, knowing she need explain no more.

Nevertheless, she still tutors on her time away from the theatre. Marshall Pailet, who plays Kurt, says "she's taught me a lot about graphs. Bar- graphs, line-graphs, picto-graphs, too."

The wranglers' job description does not officially include helping with homework, but Wilson and Brown respond when asked about compound fractions and the finer points of grammar -- especially by the understudy kids, who have little to do but stay in their dressing room. "Lately," says Wilson, "I've been helping Rachel with her paper on anorexia," he reports.

But this Wednesday, Jan, 19, Rachel Beth Levenson will go on, for Tracy Alison Walsh, the usual Brigitta, is on vacation. Though Rachel covers Louisa, too (whom she's never played), tonight she'll do the role she's already performed "one and a half-times."

One and a half? "Yeah," Rachel says, "Tracy was playing with a yo-yo and hit herself in the eye."

"They don't play with yo-yos anymore," adds a sadder-but-wiser Brown.

Then, in a musical that chastises a captain for using a whistle to summon his children, a bell goes off that tells them to be in place for their entrances. "By now," says Brown, "they're so good that when that bell goes off, they can be in the middle of play station, or a book, or an argument, and they immediately leave."

Here's where a wrangler's real work takes place. "Bobby and I alternate working downstairs," says Brown, "and tonight, while I stay upstairs with the understudies, he'll run with the kids who are performing."

Running indeed. For wranglers must go up and down so many stairs, they make Norma Desmond seem like Sheridan Whiteside. Once Wilson hears the strains of "I Have Confidence in Me," he's walking the kids down the stairs, flashlight in hand, making sure they move quickly, but not too quickly, so that no one scrapes a knee, that no dress will get a tear.

Once they kids are in the wings, he goes quiet, so they can get into character by wondering what this governess will be like. Wilson reports "They decided that the last one smelled bad and had ugly toenails."

Only when they're safely on does Wilson repair to the basement for a 10 minute break. Life would be easier for him if director Susan H. Schulman had kids always exiting on the same side of the stage as they entered, for Wilson would only have to stay in place until they were off. But more often than not, after they've come on stage left, they come off stage right. Wilson defends Schulman, though. "She has a real logic why and where the kids are going."

So, moments after the kids are on stage, Wilson descends back into the bowels of the Beck, which are both narrow and wide, straight and circuitous, and delightfully typical of an old-world theatre. Wilson points out, "Now that we've been here a while, everyone knows where he has to be. It's really tough on the road," he laments, "where you're not in theaters for any length of time. There, we run pieces of yellow tape along the ground before the show, and make a yellow brick road."

He's on the other side of the stage to fetch them as soon as the final note of "Do-Re-Mi" is hit and Liesl and Rolf play their scene. He immediately takes them to the basement, where a bevy of male and female dressers separate the kids by sexes and help with the costume changes. Wilson stands with his back to them, though the girls are in a curtained-off area. The boys, though, rough it and change in the hall.

(What's fascinating is how these adult dressers treat these kids as if they were all Tony-winning stars. There isn't the slightest amount of condescension that they're "only" dealing with kids. The kids' reactions are equally as adult, fully professional.)

Once they have on their nightgowns for the "My Favorite Things" bedroom scene, Wilson leads them back up the stairs, not bothering to warn the kids to watch their heads when they approach a low-hanging pipe -- for none of them is tall enough to be bonked by it. Last October, however, Michael Siberry (then Captain Von Trapp) forgot to duck. The kids made a white-taped outline of a body underneath that particularly precarious pipe to commemorate the accident.

Both wranglers say this is one of the best group of kids they've ever had. "One child we used to work with on another show," recalls Brown, "would, five minutes before he went on stage, say, 'I don't feel like doing this,' would take off his costume, and walk out." Needless to say, he was replaced.

"But I've had close to 300 kids now," says Wilson, "and I can count on one hand the problems. With The Sound of Music, the kids are so focused because they're integral to the telling of this story. It's harder in shows where the kids are essentially props, in an Act One crowd scene, then off for an hour. There may be a surface, light-hearted attitude here, but we're all aware that we've got to keep this train moving forward."

Of course the wranglers must also assuage kids who grow too big for their roles and are told so long, farewell. "Yes, they're very aware of the growth clause," admits Wilson. "It's always there in the back of their minds. In any job, you want leaving to be your own choice, but it rarely is here. But," he brightens, "sometimes it works out okay. Many of the girls I had playing Cosette grew enough to become Mary Lennoxes in Secret Garden. Les Miz was our farm team."

Once a kid leaves, Wilson admits that he goes through "a mourning process," but then he loses touch with them. "I'm 47, they're 11, what do you talk about?" he says with a shrug. "It's like when you leave any job. It's always harder to make conversation when you can't talk about work."

The Haverford, PA native wasn't much older than his charges -- 16 -- when he entered show business via the Valley Forge Music Circus and caught tassels when Ann Corio did This Was Burlesque. "Wrangling is a job that often goes to the producer's niece who's home from college for the summer, or to someone's girlfriend. It's often looked on as a baby sitter's position, and, yes, that's a big part of it, but you need someone with theatrical experience, too. I've done stage management, so I bring to this a knowledge of how a show works, and translate that for kids. We are their sense of adult responsibility. Adults come to work expecting to work, but the concept of work is brand-new to kids. So we ease them into the professional world, and the gap does diminish over time."

And so it goes. Brown fetches them after "My Favorite Things," and leads them downstairs to be changed into the uniforms made from the drapes (they're even more hideous close up). He must return to get them for their party costume change, the kids' last off-stage responsibility before intermission.

In a sense, intermission is a break for everyone in the theatre except the wranglers. After escorting them back to the Glamorous Guardian Lounge, he and Brown keep their eyes on them without making them feel as if they must be watched every minute, which they wouldn't like. He entertains them by passing out a few treats (Michael Siberry just sent a box of candy), and playing a funny video he made with Lou Taylor Pucci, who plays Friedrich, about the life of a child performer. Those video games and keyboards get much use, too.

But soon it's back to running and Act Two. After 10 years of this, Wilson has probably accumulated enough steps to climb every mountain and ford every stream in Austria. "No question that this job is not for everyone," he admits. "But I'm very responsible and very silly, and this job allows me to be both -- and teaches kids they can be both, too."

Finally, the show ends, and Wilson starts off for home -- where Gale will not be waiting. "Andy's in Australia, getting ready to direct I Love You! You're Perfect! Now Change!" Alas, it's a show that doesn't need a child wrangler. But maybe, by the time the two celebrate their 25th anniversary in May, they'll be working on the same show once again.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You can reach him by E-mail at Pfilichia@aol.com