by Emily Brooks
Not many people begin a cabaret singing career, difficult at any age, in their mid-70s. In fact, former Lafayette Hill resident Tonia Tecce may be the first person to do so. Tonia, now 76, will put on two performances of “A Cockeyed Optimist: Why We Believe, the Songs of Richard Rodgers” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 20, and Monday, Nov. 24, at the Curtis Institute of Music’s Field Concert Hall, 1726 Locust St.
“Follow your dreams!” “Never give up!” These admonitions have become virtual mantras on TV “reality” shows like American Idol, The Voice, Rising Star and countless other clones on which musical unknowns are convinced to try to beat the million-to-one odds facing all those who sound great singing in the shower but have never had to battle the often-cruel music industry.
But Tonia is fighting the war at an age four times older than many contestants on “American Idol” and “The Voice.” Tecce premiered her one-woman show, “A Cockeyed Optimist: Why We Believe, The Songs of Richard Rodgers,” in March of last year at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater, and she reprised it in September of last year in the Metropolitan Room in the heart of Manhattan.
Tonia grew up singing. She has fond memories of accompanying her sister, Joanne, who played the piano, in their childhood home in Paulsboro, New Jersey, or singing alongside her physician father, who was also a violinist and would occasionally perform for his patients. (Her younger brother played guitar, also.) They performed at town events and just for fun at home.
At a young age Tecce realized she didn’t just have the passion for music, she had the talent, and she quickly developed Broadway aspirations. “I told my father when I was 15 that I didn’t want to go to college,” Tecce recalls. “I just wanted to go to New York and sing and be on Broadway … Well, that didn’t go over very well.”
So Tecce enrolled at Rosemont College on the Main Line, where she studied sociology and participated in theater productions and talent shows at colleges across the Philadelphia region. It was there that others began to recognize her talent as well. During her senior year Tecce was approached by a Hollywood talent scout and offered an audition in Los Angeles. It should have been a dream come true, but things had changed for Tecce. She had fallen in love.
“Life offers us choices sometimes, often tough choices,” she said last week, “and I had to decide whether I’d take a chance at a lifelong dream or pursue the love I had already found.” Tecce decided to stay home. She was married six days after her college graduation and moved to Lafayette Hill to begin to raise a family with her husband, Fred. “Lafayette Hill was a wonderful place for us to begin to grow our family,” said Tecce. Though she and Fred now live in Gladwyne, they spent their first 15 years together in Lafayette Hill. They have six children together, four boys and two girls, and they now have 12 grandchildren as well.
“Once I walked down the aisle, I didn’t think of Hollywood or Broadway anymore. It was done. I wanted to be there for my children. But as your children grow up, you have more time on your hands, and you start wondering what you’re going to do with your life… I began to wonder if I still had a voice.”
Once her youngest son went to college, Tecce began to roll up her sleeves. “The music all came back, and I just wanted to sing.” Tecce proceeded to study with Juilliard School of Music voice teacher Florence Berggren and Martin Rich, former conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. Now, at 76, Tonia is living the dream she had always imagined. Last year she made her successful cabaret debut with her one-woman show, written and directed by Michael Bush, and this week she will be doing it again twice.
“A Cockeyed Optimist” incorporates 18 songs written by Richard Rodgers that are supported by interweaving dialogue sharing the story of Tecce’s life. Funny at times, serious at others, Tecce guarantees a show with beautifully sung Broadway favorites and classics.
“I’m not the youngest kid on the block,” Tecce says, “but I’m working hard to achieve my dream and share my talent with others. And my sincere hope is that what I’m doing can be an inspiration for others to follow their dreams.”