by Meg Cohen Ragas
On a recent Tuesday at Germantown Friends School, the Maebori fourth grade class took to the stage of the Loeb Performing Arts Center dressed as barnyard animals – pigs, cows, sheep, ducks, dogs – for their final performance of “On the Other Side of the Fence,” an original musical written by music therapist Andrea Green.
The story of two farms separated by a big fence erected because of a long-standing feud between two farmers – and two pigs’ desire to cross that fence and forge a special bond – the play explores the issues of acceptance, friendship, patience and understanding. Heavy themes for ten-year-olds to process, yes, but not when you consider who they’re sharing the stage with: students from the HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy.
For the past three decades, Teresa Maebori’s class has partnered with the HMS school in West Philadelphia in a musical theater program known as “Something Magical.” This year marks the 30th anniversary of that collaboration (being filmed for a documentary by Mind TV), which began when Maebori overheard one of her students use the word “retarded” to describe a person who was disabled.
Knowing that children struggle with difference, she took her students to HMS to meet children who were just like them except nonverbal, physically and mentally handicapped and in wheelchairs. That visit was kind of a disaster – the GFS students were uncomfortable and couldn’t find a common ground with the HMS children.
But out of that visit grew the idea of producing a musical in which students from both institutions would participate. “The Other Side of the Fence” was the first musical that HMS music therapist Green wrote, and over the last 30 years she has penned an additional seven Broadway-style scripts, each with the message of diversity and bullying at the heart.
“Andrea and her original musicals are incredible,” said fourth-grade teacher Teresa Maebori, who has collaborated with Green on all 30 productions. “They set the stage for our work together. Through music and singing the songs, the students are [mirroring] what they’re doing: ‘Good Friends,’ ‘We’ve Got to Work Together,’ ‘On the Other Side of the Fence.’ [These] are just a few of the songs that are like a play within a play.”
And during the performance, something magical truly happens on stage. While Lily Seldin charms on the perky number “I Dig That Pig,” her HMS partner, nervous and shy, pipes in quietly, but with equal enthusiasm, “He blows a kiss!” Max Marlowe’s partner, Greg Viola, takes on an entire song verse by himself, and the young actors who share the stage patiently wait through pregnant pauses, stops-and-starts and nervous laughter.
It’s not uncommon for Green to call out from the piano, “Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you!” or “Let’s try that one more time!” For those HMS students who can’t speak, there are a variety of buttons, switches and machines that they can press or operate to create sounds (like those of barnyard animals) and robotic voices.
“The naturalness of the students to overlook differences and find what is human in each other [is what I’ll miss most],” says Maebori, who will be retiring in June after 36 years of teaching at GFS.
“I’ll miss seeing the transformation of children from both schools,” she said. “I’ve seen HMS students grow and triumph in their contributions to the musicals, the smiles, laughter and sounds of joy when they know they’ve had success. I’ll miss the opportunity I’ve had in changing our children so that they won’t be afraid of someone in a wheelchair, or of someone that may not be able to walk or talk.”
As the students sing the final notes of the final number, “Celebration Hoe-down,” in a show they’ve rehearsed together for the past six months, there’s a certain bittersweetness. Connections have been made, friendships established.
“Each year, it’s hard to say good-bye,” said Maebori. “The magic and the power of the exchange haven’t changed after all of these years.”