One of Philadelphia's most famous actors and singers of musicals, Jeff Coon, joined by some of the best singers and dancers on the east coast, and accompanied by a seventeen-piece live band, will bring a series of swinging events, chock full of singing, dancing and fun, to Cape May in July and August.
Coon, who grew up in Cape May, NJ, is giving back to the community through three unusual shows.
An Evening at the Cape May Summer Club will highlight music from the Golden Era of Song, Broadway Standards and Shore Favorites, specially created for each evening.
One of the primary motivations for the creation of this event was to help establish and grow a connection between An Evening at the Cape May Summer Club and the Cape May community at large.
With that in mind, the organizers of this event established a scholarship to be awarded to students from the Lower Cape May Regional school district who are currently involved in the live arts—theatre, music, dance—and who aspire to pursue their craft professionally.
In this interview, Coon gives a moving account of what teachers in New Jersey did for his life. Based on 20 years of professional work, Coon then addresses parents and young people and shares things that very few people dare to address—all in practical and caring ways.
Tell us as much as you remember about your experiences as a child and adolescent in Cape May and your first forays into the theatre, music, and dance world.
JC: My first theatrical experiences in Cape May were in junior high school at Teitelman. I had done some revues before that, when my family lived in Florida for a few years, but my first official play was that chestnut Headin' for a Weddin'. My friend Sharon Buehler and I played a mute hillbilly brother and sister who stayed under the family bed for most of the play. It was an auspicious beginning.
I did play the viola at that time, but Nan LaCorte, the Teitelman band director, encouraged me to try the trombone instead, which I played until my senior year in high school and at various times after that—especially in the Arden Theatre's production of Assassins a few years ago.
During my freshman year in high school at Lower Cape May Regional, I got my first taste of musical theatre. They were doing The Music Man and needed boys. I had never sung before, and didn't even think I knew how. So, I auditioned and was cast as one of the salesmen and townspeople. It was really the beginning of my descent into musical theatre madness. :)
Could you portray those teachers who impacted your life as a theatre artist the most? What exactly did they do and say that encouraged you to explore new worlds?
JC: There were several of them and they all have had a lasting effect on me. The first was Sandy Beane-Fox. She was the closest I've had to a mentor in my life. She shepherded me into finding my singing voice. She was our choir teacher, the vocal director for all the musicals, and the teacher in charge of the yearbook committee. I spent A LOT of time with her and, to this day, I say any good habits I still have when singing are directly attributable to her—anything bad is something I've picked up along the way.
Paul Mathis was the second. He directed all of the musicals and plays. He was the first teacher who cursed in front of students. He introduced us to Mel Brooks, Thoreau, Monty Python, and Gilbert and Sullivan. He made us feel like we weren't just kids, but collaborators with him. He encouraged us to "take risks" and "be in the moment." He helped provide a safe place for all of the theatre kids who just wanted to be in shows and "play" together.
He passed away last year. There was a large concert held to celebrate his life. It was well attended and many people came from far away to be a part of it. It's a testament to how much he touched the lives of many individuals.
Ed Jurewicz was my band director in high school. He was, and is, an absolutely brilliant man and musician. He challenged me to work harder and practice more. He introduced us to Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and this wild and weird Jersey TV show called The Uncle Floyd Show. He cared about the music as much as he cared about the kids. He instilled a sense of admiration and appreciation for great music in me.
Stina Smith was our choreographer for all the shows. She wasn't a teacher at the school, but she taught me how to do a barrel roll and a flea hop. She also told me that I could dance if I just tried harder. I'm not sure she was right about that, but she made me believe it and that, in and of itself, is no mean feat.
Finally, Lynn Massimiano did all the costumes and make up for our shows. She also sold ads for the programs. She did anything and everything to make these shows at school a success. She has been as invaluable in that same way to the shows we're producing in Cape May. She was the first teacher that I was ever able to see as a "real person" outside of school. Even before Sandy Beane Fox, Lynn helped me realize that as much as I admired all of these teachers, they were still just regular people working their asses off to make us kids look good and have a great time.
Have you stayed in touch with some of your former teachers in Cape May? And what have been their responses to your phenomenal rise to the top in the Philadelphia theatre and music scene?
JC: You bet. I have stayed in touch with all of them. They arranged whole bus trips to see my shows in Philly. I've even had beers with all of them at one time or another. They are a remarkably supportive group of people to whom I'm incredibly grateful. That support has been extended for over 20 years now. And truly, I wouldn't go all out in producing these concerts if it weren't partially due to their artistic, moral, and sometimes even hands-on support.
What would you say to young people in Cape May, especially those who would like to follow in your footsteps—from Cape May to starring in one of America's largest theatre cities.
JC: Work hard and play nice. Work as much as you can, whenever you can, and be nice to EVERYONE you work with, even when you might not want to be. There are too many people in this business who are talented. The ones you remember and want to work with, time and time again, are the ones who show up prepared, ready to work, and who don't make a ton of waves.
That doesn't mean don't speak up for yourself. Rather, it means speak up for yourself in a way that respects both yourself and the rest of the people you're working with. Nobody wants to be around a jerk. So be nice to each other, and support other artists! A rising tide lifts all ships, so don't spend so much time just trying to get yourself ahead.
Lend a hand when you can. Go see other shows or work—it's educational and important.
Standing on stage, performing, and basking in applause from the audience can be a great experience, but there are also problematic aspects for practically all theatre artists who have to hunt down new jobs all year 'round. What would you say to young people to help them prepare themselves for the many rejections they most likely will experience, without letting any negativity distract them from their artistic and professional life goals?
JC: Play a game with yourself: In a given time period, set a goal for the number of jobs you DON'T get. Look for the No in your life and embrace it. That process forces you to take the power out of that little word we hear so often in this business and make it something you look for.
For example, set a goal that says you have to get 30 NOs over the course of a month of auditioning. This method FORCES you to go to more auditions. You'll increase your NOs, but you'll also increase your chances of getting cast, which obviously is the real goal. It also hones your auditioning skills and makes you inured to the negative a little bit more.
Also, try to remember that just because you get a NO doesn't mean you're no good. It means that there are many factors involved in getting a job and, this time, it just didn't work out. Keep auditioning. Keep working when you can, and keep your chin up.
JC: Twenty-five years ago, I was some version of your kid. I was figuring out who and what I was and wanted to be. I had some great teachers who pointed me in directions that I didn't necessarily expect, but enjoyed anyway. I worked hard.
I have established a career in the arts which ain't always easy, but I didn't do it on my own. I did it with supportive communities of people who helped foster me and keep me moving forward and growing as an artist—even when it wasn't always easy. That's part of why we're establishing a scholarship through these concerts, because I want to be able to give a small token of my thanks to the community that helped foster me by doing the same thing for another kid interested in the arts.
Thank you, Jeff. I like what I'm hearing and would like to see your show. Is there any chance that I could also meet all those mentors of yours during intermission?
JC: Absolutely, but you're going to have to find them without my help because [he smiles] I'm going to be a little busy during intermission on Saturday night.
Originally published by the New Jersey Stage, July 25, 2014.