Interview with a Playwright and teacher: John T. Dalessandro

(Ricardo Ben-Safed ) As soon as I met John D’Alessandro at the weekly Coffee Club, I wanted to interview him. He’s a retired High School English and Drama teacher who also went to Merton College, Oxford and earned a PhD. and has an interesting creative history. So I decided to interview him.  Here are the results of the interview.


“John, What do you think got you started in theater productions?  How old were you when your interest was first piqued?”


 (John D’Alessandro )  “Since my mother was a business woman, running beauty shoppes, she occupied her five children, including my brother and I in various lessons to keep us busy and out of trouble. Rita has to study accordion, Jeanette, the Hawaiin guitar, Antoinette, drums.  My brother and I  were forced into dancing school, whether we liked like it or not, taking lessons sometimes three times a week from the age of 4.
We danced for all charity organizations who were having meetings or banquets, and in the early 1930 were in a few vaudeville shows.  Our picture is still displayed in an old vaudeville theatre in Oaklyn, N.J.,  The Ritz. My mother did play the piano and my father played the guitar for our family orchestra (brother and I were the singers).  Our dancing teacher was a pretty good, we never realized that he was gay.”
(Ric) “I enjoyed reading  the anecdotes you wrote about in your book ” It tolls for thee, Mr. D”. There is a charm in reading about the young High School adventures of people who later became celebrities.  What did you learn about Producing that might have helped you as a High School Teacher?”
(John) “There are some stories in the original book about students in my musicals: notably Bye,Bye Birdie,  Good News, Oliver etc. I would always tell my casts no to be inspired to go into acting, but a few did anyway, including Bruce Willis and Michael Landon who were successful, but many more who got nowhere.  Of course, being in a high school musical is an unforgettable experience for high school seniors and the subsequently all became fans of and attended productions of Broadway musicals. This was the best teaching effect and result.”
(Ric) “When do you think your interest in musical theater got started? Did you have dance or voice lessons when you were young?  Do you think you are organized  to produce from afar, or did you direct the productions more from impulse?”
(John).  “When I was a high school senior, we wanted  to give a Broadway musical but we didn’t have money for royalties. Consequently, a class mate and I wrote a musical called  “A Latin in Manhattan”, I directed it as a student and it  was pretty good.  When I went to Temple U. in my junior and senior years, although I was in the business school, I was dance captain for two musicals given by the famous Pop Randall (theater names after him.) At those shows everything backstage was chaos. so when I did my own musicals I developed a system of completely organizing the cast and all the committees, so that it would all operate smoothly without my being back stage.”
(Ric). “Did you have a role model to be a Producer?  How did you develop those skills if not?”
(John) “I guess it was in my third year in my third school, that I got a chance to direct a play.  The school had never done a musical before, but I decided to give “Good News”,  copying most of the stuff from the movie. There were 90 Seniors students. The choral work was very hard to do.  I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I did “Bye Bye Birdie” for my second musical and found out for myself how to do it.”
(Ric) ” So would you say that your methods evolved along with your interests?
(John) “My methods were picked up by several high school  in South Jersey, and also by about three cast members who became teacher-directors in the own high school jobs.”
(Ric) “I imagine if was a trick to keep a balance between your job as an English teacher and developing the musical theater group at the High School?  Did you have to fine tune your own skills?”
(John)  “When picking a high school musical, you have to keep a ear out for good singers in the school choir or glee club.  I never pre-cast but I usually knew who would be trying out for the lead roles. Although a few times, such as with “High Button Shoes“, a great lead came out of the woodwork. Of course, I had seen the show or movie of the musicals;  sometimes, as with West Side Story I was in theatre in the dark scribbling notes on the choreography of Jerome Robins etc. Costumes was never an obstacle because in all cases but one, I rented costumes from Brooks Van in New York. I always had the good fortune of having a great music director who never argued with me.”
(Ric) ” Would the School District give you a budget to work with?  How did you fund this musical theater.
Did the School Districts leave you on your own , and just paid the bills without questions?”
(John)  “In the adult productions, such as with the Haddonfield Chorale or the Camden County Musicrafters, the group usually had no money, and that meant I would have to be producer, director, choreographer, and also public relations director. In adult groups there were always people with college experience, so you would get a dentist who would be a great Music Man.  None of my productions every made much money but they did break even.”
(Ric)  “What was your best musical and the worse to produce? What production was the easiest…. ? What effect did they have on you?”
(John)  “Of all the 21 productions I directed and choreographed, I found “High Button Shoes” to be the most difficult. Besides 105 in the cast, 300 costumes, much scenery, three horses, a gorilla, a model T car and so much else. Fortunately I had a student teacher take over my English classes, but the task was monumental and I lost 30 lbs. The easiest was West Side Story with the Penn Players. Because the 32 boys and 32 girls wanted to do it. Penn students are very smart and they would call their own rehearsals without me. They were easy to teach. Although I could have used get-up costumes I had all the costumes, including beautiful suits and gowns, made for me by Brooks Van Han in New York.”
(Ric)  “How hard do you work to get High Schoolers interested in going into the Theater.  Comment if you would on inherited skills and ‘learned’ ones.”
(John)  “I try very hard to dissuade students, especially cast members, from thinking about studying theatre arts. But some defy all the odds and do it anyway. Some go to N.Y.C but usually end up working in a restaurant and working as a bartender. If any of these ever get anywhere, it is mostly luck. In the present time, they shouldn’t try unless they are really, really good looking.  Directors don’t care about resume’s but the will take a good singer who is really good looking.”
(Ric)  “Did you inspire yourself to become a Playwright? “
(John)  “Of course, my play   “Raiding Poppa” has been sent to many producers in New York City. There was one production of it in Daytona Beach and some companies did readings.  It is almost a fantasy of mine and I wrote it mostly in tribute to my mother, who was a great suffragette, and to my grandfather, who although he was a bootlegger, was a great man.”
(Ric)  ” What important proverb or wisdom did you learn from your experiences and publishing a book of memoirs?”
(John) “The first book was one great vanity trip, signing books, making guest appearances etc.  At my age, if I complete the second book, do I really need another vanity trip.?”


(Ric)  “Well, I hope you don’t talk yourself out of it.  I attended and very much enjoyed your course at Temple University Center City titled  “How to Produce a Broadway Musical”.  I’m going to look forward to your next book as well as the next course at Temple University.  Incidentally I just did a search and discovered that your first book is presently on sale at in England for £ 25.25, but here in the u.s. for $125 to 130 dollars”


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Walt Whitman’s assessment of Edgar A. Poe.

Walt Whitman’s reaction to the Poetry of Edgar A. Poe. (Sorry Poe fans!)

“Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page—and, by final judgment, probably belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.” – Walt Whitmanon Edgar Allan Poe’s significance, circa 1880.

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Taylor, Bayard (1825-1878) | The Vault at Pfaff’s

Source: Taylor, Bayard (1825-1878) | The Vault at Pfaff’s

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Bishop Calls Being Gay a “Gift from God,” Seeks to Save LGBT Lives — Bondings 2.0

Homosexuality is a “gift from God” according to one bishop in Brazil, who said his intentions in preaching on the topic were about saving the lives of LGBT people who may be at risk. Bishop Antônio Carlos Cruz Santos of Caicó made the positive remarks in a July homily, telling Mass-goers: “‘If [being gay] is […]

via Bishop Calls Being Gay a “Gift from God,” Seeks to Save LGBT Lives — Bondings 2.0

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Spanish Jews involved in American Revolution?

On November 7,8 and 9th, 2017  the Jewish History Museum will be the site of the 26th annual conference of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies annual Conference and the first time since its founding in 1991 it will be in Philadelphia. Pa.  Conference attendees will stay at the Wyndham Hotel in the Colonial Historic District.  And yes, Spanish Jews were settled in Philadelphia from 1735, and even Dr. Benjamin Franklin contributed 3 British Stirling pounds. A considerable amount at the time. Most of the Spanish Jews were Portuguese having fled from Spain during the expulsions.



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It seems like you can’t read a newspaper or online news about anything related to medicine (not to mention some novels) without running into terms such as DNA, RNA and protein, all sorts. I thought maybe I could provide a primer, in bite-sized bits, which you could use to follow along. The information I will […]

via All That Genetic Stuff: DNA — SaylingAway

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Wisdom on song writing.

A couple years ago a friend published a book titled “Teacher!, Teacher! , Mr. D’s amazing adventures at Collwood High .”   It’s by J. D’Alessandro. We got to talking, me listening, and he waxing eloquent about writing music. So I asked him permission to re-publish his words of wisdom on the subject.

The following is all his ideas.

1. There is always the question of which comes first, music or lyrics. Jerry Herman, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter and many others sat at the piano and wrote and lyrics at the same time. When Rodgers worked with Hart, Hart wrote the lyrics and Rodgers would do the music. Since Rodgers was always drunk at Sardi’s, Rodgers gave up on him, and joined up with his classmate from a Brooklyn high school, Oscar Hammerstein II.


They worked separately with Hammerstein writing the lyrics first, and then Rodger putting it to music. Stephen Sondheim stays away from the piano and writes all his lyrics laying on a couch with a yellow pad then putting it to music. Although famous, Sondheim has never had a hit song. His only popular song, “Bring in The Clowns” was stuck into “A Little Night Music” by his friend, John LaPointe, the director, although it had nothing to do with the play. Some of the great song writers like Irving Berlin and Anthony Newley could not read music ( It was also said that Sinatra, really couldn’t read music) Cole Porter became famous writing outrageously tricky lyrics to his catchy music. He did write several musicals. “Anthing Goes” and “Kiss Me Kate” remain popular and are given all over the world many times each year. Without question, Oscar Hammerstein is the greatest lyricist of all, having written the lyrics for everything from “Showboat” to “South Pacific and a dozen more great musicals. Stephen Sondheim does not really want to write Broadway musicals. He really wants to write opera where everything in the play is sung.

3 The 1999 federal law said all songs, musicals, and artistic works of an author would have copyright protection for his heirs for 99 years after the the death of the lyricist or composer, but that all artistic musical works would be in the common domain if written before 1923. Although the song is sung in every country from Italy to China, “Happy Birthday” has been held, until recently, by copyright law by Warner Music.and royalties had to be paid. ($12,000 if played on network television) Recently the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “Happy Birthday” was in the common domain, but it is being contested and appealed.

4. Most song writers have ASCAP collect royalties for them. Its phone number is 800 505-4052. This agency used to find out about the illegal use of songs by information from newspaper clipping services; now it finds out about illegal use from anything and everything put on the Internet. Illegal use usually results in a bill sent to the illegal users for the royalties. ASCAP was organized when Victor Herbert heard his songs being played in a swanky restaurant. He demanded payment of a royalty. After he was rebuked, he got together with Rudolph Friml, Sigmund Romberg, Irving Berlin and 10 other to form ASCAP ( American Association of Composers and Publishers). Although ASCAP controls 50,000 songs, some songs are controlled by other agencies like Disney Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein

Repertory, Tams-Witmak Musical Library. If one does not know who the song writer is, he goes to a “clearing” house to get appropriate licenses for the songs. If a piano player is using a lot of songs in a saloon, ASCAP will give him for a fee a “blanket license”.

5. As for musicals, the licenses for use are mostly controlled by Tams-Witmark, or Music Theater International, or Rodgers and Hammerstein Repertory ( which also controls all of Irving Berlin’s songs). Nothing can be used for free, royalties must be paid for everything or a lawsuit ensues. The current royalties on non-professional musical productions is about 20% of the “take” (the number of seats, times the number of performances, times the ticket price determines the total take). Meredith Wilson’s 3rd wife sold all his copyrights to one of the Beatles for 5 million. “The Music Man” is given someplace in the world 800 times a year paying full royalty. Two years ago TheWalnut Theatre had to pay $ 45,000 to the Beatles guy for the right to perform the show. For example, West Chester High School had to pay about $5,000 in royalties in order to give “The Music Man 3 years ago.

6. Recently “Bullets Over Broadway” .. the failed Broadway musical ( it lasted only 3 months on the Great White Way) played in Philadelphia. Woody Allen, the author, decided to use about 20 old time 20’s songs, but the production has to pay royalties to all original authors by way of ASCAP.

There are perennial songs that keep on producing royalties for song writers. Lee Adams who wrote “Put On A Happy Face” for “Bye Bye Birdie” told me he lives on the royalties from that one song.

7. My field is play production. I wrote a cost estimate for possible investors for the musical “Bridges of Madison County” with capitalization at $12 million. It played a month in previews, but was killed by the critics on opening night and closed immediately. The investors lost everything. Only one in 5 Broadway musicals make any money. Because too many people were losing money on Broadway shows, Gov Cuomo has passed a law that investors must be “qualified” ( half million in income, at least 5 million in assets). But one can still invest in corporations that invest in Broadway musicals for at little as $10. It is like betting on horse. But investors in “Phantom of the Operas” have made 3.2 billion. Investors from Camden N.J, who put up the money for “My Fair Lady”, are still getting royalty checks.



Ricardo Ben Safed.


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