March 24, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Give our regards to Broadway. Wait, make that South Portland.

Opening night always means butterflies when you're a lead actor in your high school musical. But before he took the South Portland High School stage Friday evening as the irrepressible Jimmy Smith in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," Ethan Benevides wasn't just nervous.

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Paige Doane leads a song during a performance by South Portland High School students of the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Friday.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

There were many seats available near the back of the South Portland High School auditorium just before the start of the performance of the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Friday. The school could not advertise the production because of licensing restrictions.

Tim Greenway

"I was scared," said Benevides, a tall, lanky junior with more than enough presence to fill an 800-seat auditorium. "I wasn't sure if it was going to work out."

Ditto for Paige Doane, who plays wide-eyed Millie Dillmount in the high-energy tale of New York City circa 1922.

"I was so worried," she said. "This is my senior year -- and I just wanted everything to be fine."

Don't get them wrong. Along with their 45 fellow cast members, these kids had their parts down pat.

It was the audience -- or the potential lack thereof -- that had them sweating bullets.

Cue the backstory:

Back in September, as they have for the past 24 years, co-directors Steve and Jane Filieo put out the casting call for the high school's annual musical. As they surveyed the talent for this year (nobody gets turned away), the Filieos decided "Cinderella" -- with Doane as Cinderella and Benevides as the charming young prince -- would be the perfect fit.

And so, as they've done so many times before, they applied for a licensing contract with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Theatre Library in New York City, which owns the rights to "Cinderella."

A week went by with no response.

Another week passed. Still nothing.

Finally, anxious to start production, the Filieos called to see what was taking so long.

"You've been declined," the licensing agent told them.

Why?

Because "Cinderella" was scheduled to open on Broadway in March, that's why. And South Portland High School, with its cavernous auditorium, was seen as competition with the professional production.

Come again? A high school play, four states and 300-plus miles from the Broadway Theatre, posed enough of a threat to deny these kids a performance license?

"I was flattered," Steve Filieo said dryly.

He was also seriously behind schedule and in need of a new musical -- one that would fit the principal actors who'd been selected for "Cinderella."

"Thoroughly Modern Millie," winner of six Tony Awards during its run on Broadway from 2002 to 2004, fit the bill. So off the Filieos went to Music Theatre International, which owns the rights to that production.

More silence.

By now, the Filieos had scrapped any hopes of having the musical ready for the traditional run over the first two weekends in February. Instead, they pushed the schedule back to three performances this weekend and, after a break for Easter, three more on the weekend of April 4-5.

But they needed that license. And when they finally called Music Theatre International to see what was taking so long, another trap door opened.

It seems the Ogunquit Playhouse plans to put on "Thoroughly Modern Millie" this June, with Sally Struthers as the diabolical dragon lady Mrs. Meers. And while the licensing agency did give South Portland High School the green light to go ahead with its production, they added one very problematic stipulation.

"They said 'You can't do any advertising,' " Filieo recalled. "The only publicity we could do had to be in-school."

Meaning no posters in store windows all over town. No calendar listing in local newspapers. No way to let the world know that this year's musical, already knocked off-schedule by almost two months, was even happening.

A little background on South Portland High's musicals: They're completely self-funded, they engage a wide range of kids who might otherwise have little to do, and they traditionally pack the auditorium with parents, fellow students, teachers, alumni and more than a few folks with no direct connection to the school other than their love of a good show.

(Continued on page 2)

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