Woog's World: The show must go on, even in COVID

For 79 years, Staples High School’s Candlelight Concert has been more than just a holiday show.

Begun the year before Pearl Harbor, and enduring through wars, recessions and the aftermath of 9/11, the music department’s gift to the town showcases the town’s talented teenagers – and celebrates the indomitable human spirit.

Rich in tradition, it inspires both awe and hope. The Candlelight Concert begins with a solemn, candlelit processional and the wonderfully obscure “Sing We Noel.” Choral ensembles, orchestral groups and bands then take the stage. The school’s music directors meld religious-tinged Christmas, Hanukkah and world music with classical pieces and popular tunes. The program builds to a climax: an original, light-hearted production number, followed immediately by the rousing “Hallelujah Chorus.” Alumni join current singers on the risers. Voices young and old blend; the trumpeter nails those difficult notes, and the splendid evening swells to a joyous conclusion. For many Westporters, the holiday season does not begin until Candlelight ends.

After 80 years, COVID has managed something nothing else could. This year, there will be no live, in-person concert. But even a global pandemic has not knocked out one of Westport’s longest, most beloved traditions. This year more than ever, the show must go on.

Staples’ music educators spent months preparing for this year’s Candlelight. Hybrid learning cut sharply into in-class time. Health restrictions keep orchestra and band musicians several feet apart. Singers are distanced even further.

So there will be no processional this year. There’s no production number, or “Hallelujah Chorus.” There will, however, be a Candlelight Concert. And it might be the most memorable one ever.

Last weekend, hundreds of high school students gathered – in small groups, masked and socially distanced – for videotaped performances. Their selections will be livestreamed at 7:30 p.m. on December 19 – the day and time for a traditional show.

But this is far more than just a concert video. Interspersed with musical numbers are interviews. Current chorus, orchestra and band leaders discuss their selections. Former directors Alice Lipson, Adele Valovich and Nick Mariconda describe the magic of Candlelight. Alumni remember their concerts. And the children of legendary choral director George Weigle and orchestra counterpart John Hanulik talk about their fathers’ impacts.

It will be a special Candlelight – and one accessible not just to Westporters (who always scrambled for the limited number of tickets), but anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Even the performers themselves can sit home with family and enjoy “their” show. Registration for the link begins 9 a.m. on Dec. 14, at www.StaplesMusic.org. It’s a little bit of normalcy in a world no one envisioned when Candlelight began in 1940 – or even 2019.

Music is not the only Staples department to be nimble and flexible in the coronavirus age. Since 1958, Players – the award-winning theatrical troupe – has entertained audiences with two shows a year, and several studio plays. The fall musical is a particular thrill. From classics like “Oklahoma!” and “The Music Man” to last year’s “Mamma Mia!,” Players’ professional-quality actors, singers, dancers, and set and costume designers continually raise the bar for what teenagers can accomplish.

The moment it was clear that this fall’s stage would be dark, directors David Roth and Kerry Long pivoted. They devised a series of radio plays, which audiences could enjoy through the school’s radio station, WWPT-FM.

Roth and Long selected three diverse shows. “The Wizard of Oz,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All involved, not just spoken lines (and, with “Wizard,” music, and with “Pride,” accents), but sound effects and even costume design --though the costumes were never actually created.

In keeping with old-time radio, Players created ads for local businesses. It was fun for the whole family. And to encourage families to gather together on Sunday nights, there were discount meal tie-ins with area restaurants (notably, for “Pride and Prejudice,” Fairfield’s Gruel Brittania).

In true theatrical fashion, when Staples abruptly shifted to full remote learning in mid-November, Players adapted. Most rehearsals had been online, but a few were scheduled for the Black Box Theater, where the Sunday show was to be held. Instead the entire production was done remotely, from each actor and tech crew’s home. No one listening would have known.

The radio shows were such a smash, Roth and Long added a fourth. “A Christmas Carol” will be presented this Sunday at 6 p.m. on www.wwptfm.org.

This looks like a long, dark winter. It’s tough finding good news anywhere. But thanks to committed, supportive staff, and talented, highly motivated students, Westporters, alumni, relatives and friends all around the world will still enjoy the Candlelight Concert and Staples Players.

How’s that for a Christmas miracle?

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.