From the rear of the auditorium, a baritone booms, the voice drawing closer with each audible footfall. “How many times have I told you, it's 'Two households, both alike in dignity in fair Verona where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, not Two households, alike in dignity in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, ancient grudges break mutiny?' Does that sound like Shakespeare? You're butchering his beautiful language!” On cue, the lights dim, the music begins, and the performance starts at the top of the previous scene. Apparently I am the only one taken aback by the interference. “These kids, they'll be the death of me,” the voice mutters, collapsing into the seat next to me. “The show opens on Friday and they still haven't learned their damn lines. With all I do for these kids...”
Tom Marcello, drama queen extraordinaire, for whom every day is a theatrical production, is in his element. Sweat shining on his forehead, a towel coiled around his neck like Cleopatra's asp, and his day-old iced coffee firmly grasped in hand, Marcello appears clairvoyant. Hoisting himself out of the seat, he rushes to the stage, in his feigned old-aged waddle. Students part like the Red Sea to let him through. He steps to center-stage and waits until the spotlight is refocused on him. There's no need to wait for silence; the auditorium hushed the moment he rose. “Okay cherubs, it's a wrap for tonight. Same time tomorrow for a full dress rehearsal. Get some sleep--can't have you worn out for opening night.” The lights fade to black, and Marcello remains the lone figure in the auditorium.
Tom Marcello is drama director and English teacher at Joseph Case High School in Swansea, Massachusetts, and these students comprise his elite drama club, as formidable a team at this school as any athletic squad. “My little cherubs are off at athletic practices, soccer, basketball, football-all four football captains are involved in drama! Where else does that happen?” he exclaims. And how better to ensure a successful program than to use the diverse talents that the union of these students creates? Marcello has spent years building his program into what it is today: the favorite contender at the annual Massachusetts Drama Guild Festival. As Brian McCann a former student and current principal, states, “Tom Marcello has made Joseph Case High School one of the premier secondary theatre programs in the state…[the program] cuts through all groups at the high school, forming a mosaic of the high school's population.”
“I can't imagine the school without Tom's theatre department, probably because I've never known the school without it,” says April Hanks, another former student and current colleague. “I was stupid for taking acting so late in my high school career; senior year was my best mostly because of his acting classes and the plays I was involved in. He created-and from what I hear, still creates-a truly fun learning environment.”
In fact, in 1993, the Case production of The Grapes of Wrath beat out St. John's Preparatory seniors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. “During a break I was out smoking a cigarette with Matt Damon. And so we're smoking and you hear over the intercom, 'Congratulations to Case High!' And Matt goes 'Hey, man, isn't that your school?' And so he held my cigarette while I watched our kids accept the award. It was nice. Matt and Ben had just finished filming School Ties, and we trounced 'em!” Marcello recalls. Case students take drama seriously, but then so does their director.
“I demand a lot of the kids,” Marcello admits. His intimidating theatrical persona has earned him the nickname “The Beast” for his displays of public humiliation to those who come even a minute late to rehearsal. As his former student and current colleague Donna Hawley states, with Tom, everything's for show. “He's always in character.” And as Cory Ferreira, a former student and two-time drama club president, sardonically adds, “He's funny as all hell. A simple conversation with him is quite an adventure.” Being in his company is exhausting, as colleague Benita Ryan jokes, “He has a wonderful sense of humor, if you can tolerate being in his company for long enough.” In fact, as Hanks recalls, Marcello's character has inspired legends among students: “According to lore, he grabbed his chest, fell down and stayed there for several minutes as the clueless and apparently heartless freshmen sat staring in their seats. Then he got up and yelled at them all for allowing him to die right in front of them.”
Whether a testament to Marcello's extensive resume or melodramatic flair, he indisputably casts a powerful spell over all who know him. Apparently, in order to come under his powerful spell, as Ferreira says, “You just have to be part of [Case drama] to understand.” Ferreira explains, “M's [the student's affectionate nickname for Marcello] attitude is infectious, the way he can brighten up a room when he's happy and by contrast, darken a room when he's upset--the disparity is unbelievable. We're only happy when he is.” Marcello has, over the years, become a father figure to many of the students. He has even been known to use the phrase “father figure” himself, yet it's a mutual caring between the students and Marcello that has allowed the union. In Marcello's emphatic presence, one cannot help but seek to please him. As Ferreira says, “He's just like family in the sense that every time I come home [from college] he is one of the people I MUST see.”
Not content to simply direct the school's three annual productions, the self-proclaimed Renaissance man performs in, directs, and writes for professional and semi-professional theatre. In 1976, Marcello co-founded Trinity Repertory's Conservatory, an apprenticeship for young actors. As a young actor himself, Marcello was able to dabble in the spotlight through Emerson College's apprenticeship with local Boston theatres. “I was a lighting apprentice for the original Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand. When Carol Burnett was in Fade Out, Fade In, I was the stagehand. And the original Cabaret? I was a gofer.”
At Emerson, Marcello started in the set building and design program. “They said to me, 'Tom, your ideas are so creative, but your math, well…it sucks.' And so I ended up in my field [directing.]” Freshman year, Marcello roomed with Henry Winkler, who would become famous for his role on Happy Days as Arthur Fonzarelli. “He was obnoxious! Everyone on campus hated him. I was the only one who could deal with him. It was like the running joke-every time there'd be a show I'd share my dressing room with him. 'Cause he's the kind of guy, he'd come into the dressing room and say 'I really sucked tonight.' And I'd say, 'Yeah you did.' I wasn't under his spell.” In fact it appears that Winkler was under Marcello's spell.
“When Henry became 'The Fonz,' the fame went to his head; he wouldn't even look at us after that. A friend of ours, a frat brother, had a bunch of kids working for him and they naturally wanted autographs of Henry when they realized the connection. So he calls up Henry and asks for some autographs for these kids and Henry hangs up on him! The elitist bastard! So I called Henry and said, 'Listen Henry, I knew you when you were nothing. There's no better way to get to know a person than living with 'em. I put up with your shit in the dressing rooms. Who do you think you are to refuse autographs to those kids?' Later on I hear that he not only autographed pictures for the kids, he hand-delivered them,” Marcello chuckles, settling back in his chair post-tirade. “Now whenever he's in town he calls me up and we go to dinner, take pictures, you know. He's humbled. 'We're old now, Tom,' he said.”
Although Marcello remained on the East Coast after college, his friends tried numerous times, in vain, to get him to California. “One of my friends out in California was property manager for this new show. He wanted me to come and work on the pilot. He says, 'It's this great new show about a flying nun.' Riiight, I think, a flying nun, that's gonna work. How famous is the flying nun now?” Marcello sarcastically questions.
Marcello is no stranger to missed opportunities. Broadway producers requested one of his original scripts; however, due to unappreciated alterations to his script, he withdrew it. Marcello devoutly believes in fate: “If it's meant to be, it will be; if it's not, it won't be. For instance, Bill Cain [of Trinity fame] offered me the role of the king in the Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress, with Sarah Jessica Parker and Jane Krakowski, but it was just the wrong timing. I would've had to take time out of work and get a New York apartment. It just wouldn't have worked. Now I see it as a good thing since I hear Sarah was a real witch to everyone. She's ugly as a dog, with a nose like...but anyway, it closed four months after opening. See, it wasn't meant to be.”
Through his work with the Warren Summer Festival, Marcello met long-time friend and colleague Bobby Calenda. During the summer of 1976, twelve-year-old Calenda caught Marcello's attention by stealing hand-made costumes. Donned Coco Chanel by his peers, Calenda got his degree in costume design, and then worked on the costumes for such Broadway blockbusters as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Cats, as well as selling his own clothing line to the Bergdorf Goodman clothing chain. Calenda even donated a Glinda (as in the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz) dress worth over fifteen thousand dollars to the Case High drama department, a sort of reparation for the original costumes he stole from Marcello.
Unfortunately, about seven years ago, Calenda succumbed to a thirteen-year battle with AIDS. “He didn't tell me until the last four years. Cathy [Marcello's wife] knew, but I didn't. I remember the tie I was wearing when he told me. I couldn't wear that tie again until recently, and only then because it really matched a shirt I wanted to wear,” he recounts with a chuckle.
With Marcello's vast spectrum of talents, it fits that he would seek the camaraderie of other such performing artists. Nonchalantly, Marcello mentions that he calls Cyndi Lauper a close personal friend, and goes on to mention, “I was a featured extra in Mr. North, the movie with Lauren Bacall, Anthony Edwards and Angelica Huston. I was a butler.” Marcello's seven- year-old son, Adam, was also featured as an extra; however, Marcello never tried to live vicariously though his children. “They were only in plays when they asked to be.” Coincidently or not, Adam has made a name for himself in the music world. He has played back-up for such names as Aerosmith and Sting, released his own CDs, and worked on such scores as the opening to Malcolm in the Middle as well as numerous other soundtracks. Adam, unlike his father, made the move to California to pursue his calling.
“He needs the loyalty of these kids as much as they need him,” Hawley observes. And Marcello's students are decisively loyal to their leader in turn. “It's safe to say that the majority of Swansea has at least been to one Case production, if they haven't been involved in one. If you try out, Tom will cast you, even if it's as a 'wall.' There are about 600 kids in the school, and 200 are involved in drama. It tells you something when he held Munchkin auditions [for the Wizard of Oz] and hundreds of local kids showed up. That's how great his reputation is. And these kids would do anything for him. He says 'Jump,' and they ask 'How high?' He loves these kids almost as much as he loves theatre.”
“Teaching at Case was supposed to be temporary. I was gonna leave when the kids finished high school, and then college, and then well, my kids are almost thirty now.” Today, over 30 years later, Marcello is finishing out his last year at Case. The principal, his department head, numerous colleagues, and parents of his current students were all students of Marcello. But with his numerous talents and opportunities, does he regret teaching? “No. I always knew the theatre was there, that I could do it when I wanted. It's always an option. The real theatre is in your repertory theatres, like Trinity; there you don't have all the buy-outs and sell-outs, no microphones; the real creative minds. It's real theatre and I've done that, many times. So I did 'make it big.' It's only when I direct something like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for community theatre and I get asked, 'Why the hell are you teaching? Look at what you can do,' that I get a little antsy. But I'm retiring. Now I can act and direct all I want. “
As the lights dim, a deadly hush descends upon the audience. It's opening night, Marcello's last opening night at Case. His audience is filled with past and present students but Marcello is not just another Mr. Holland set to play his last opus. In fact, Marcello isn't even present on stage. Sometime during the second act, at the unwavering urging of his students, Marcello will nonchalantly walk across the stage, a move even Hitchcock would approve of. At the moment, he is content to watch his masterpiece unfold. His baby, the theatre program, gasping its last magnificent breaths, will die after tonight. After all, what is Frankenstein without his creation? With “For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” the lights fade to black.