'Drama High': Celebrating a Bucks County teacher
The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater
By Michael Sokolove
Riverhead. 338 pp. $27.95
"You changed my life."
Are there any other words that sound as sweet to a teacher, that carry a greater seismic impact? They are, after all, why teachers choose to teach, aren't they . . . that poignant yearning for the chance to influence, to inspire, to transform, to alter lives, to change . . . well, if not the world then maybe a generation, or two, or three?
Which brings us to the Music Man, alias Lou Volpe, a high-school teacher of the performing arts whose dedication and inspiration stretched across more than four decades. His is a story that has cried to be celebrated, which has been a sentiment shared by many, but especially so by Michael Sokolove, who has gotten around at last to making good on his promise to chronicle the life and times and staggering reach of an extraordinary person. He reads at the Free Library Tuesday.
It is not a book simply worthy of being read, it is a book worthy of being devoured.
It is crisply written, richly detailed, unflinchingly emotional but not gratuitously maudlin. Sokolove was granted unlimited access, and it shows on every page.
There are, in Sokolove's Drama High, echoes of Mr. Holland's Opus, but Sokolove is able to take an approach that differs from the usual biographical slant - lo, those many years ago he himself was a student of Volpe's at Harry S Truman High School in Levittown. (Volpe retired in May.) Sokolove states, without equivocation, that Volpe has been teacher, mentor, and friend to him, and that he too has had his life course changed and refined by Volpe: "He was central to what I would become."
(And so in one of those emotional circle-closing moments, at the 2010 commencement at Truman High, one of the speakers was Michael Sokolove.)
Over and over, students testify to Sokolove, a former staffer for The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, how they are mesmerized by Volpe's knack of finding in them the light switch and turning it on, of bringing out of them ... well, in the words of one of them, Sheri Cunningham: "He saw something in me that I would have never recognized in myself."
And Zach Philippi, one of those Golden Boy athletes for whom high school is something to glide through, says: "There are more parts of me than I realized before. I've danced on stage, I've sung on stage, it totally changed me."
Sokolove likens Volpe to the coach of one of those small-town high school football juggernauts in Texas or Ohio. He is known by all, and revered, and when he is casting for a musical or play, the lines for tryouts stretch out the door and around the block.
The talent he molds is stunning, several levels above the typical high school production, and over the years the reputation of Truman High and Lou Volpe has spread, the apex arriving when Broadway producers and titans of the theater routinely make the pilgrimage to Levittown, there to sit on wooden planks in a shabby auditorium and marvel at what is unfolding on stage.
Levittown is a hardscrabble town that was once hailed as a suburban Eden but now is all but played out. Sokolove: "It's where you do not want to be, and where you'd leave town if you hit the lottery."
And yet from this patch of overgrown weeds, Lou Volpe and legions of teenagers raise roses. They do it with an exhausting work ethic and a willingness to respond to Volpe's total submersion in their lives, all the while negotiating the tempest-tossed world of teenage angst.
Truman High has a rainbow student body - Latinos, blacks, whites - who manage to coexist, united by pride in their theatrical success. Truman's reputation spreads far and wide, and routinely in competition with "snob schools" from a different caste level, Truman takes home all the laurels.
Volpe claims no high school program in America can match Truman in quality and achievements, and while as outrageous as that may sound at first blush, you suspect it may be true.
Volpe is not content to play it safe, staging only sanitized chestnuts, and the students, who sense in him a kindred spirit, respond - at the auditions for Rent, whose controversial roles include a drag queen, an ex-junkie, and a lesbian, 300 students, about one in every five, tried out.
"I sometimes wonder," Sokolove writes, "has he pushed it too far. His students walk right along with him, on a high wire, 'the knife's edge' as Volpe likes to say. They come to believe what he believes - not in art for art's sake, but in art as a way of fully embracing and, understanding, life."
And every day becomes an education.
Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist.
Michael Sokolove: "Drama High"
7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
Admission: Free. No tickets required.