The circus comes to town


The circus came to town this past weekend in the form of my son-in-law Ben Kintisch, all pumped up to perform the cabaret version of his musical called Life Review: The Hospice Musical. Those of you who are my Facebook friends have seen my postings about the event over the last few weeks, encouraging people to buy tickets for his house concert at our apartment.

A little background. Ben has shuttled back and forth between cantorial posts and working as a classroom teacher, partial to teaching music to little ones. During his cantorial gigs, he also participated in chaplaincy training for four years, particularly hospice work and elder care. He’s a rare bird, drawn to both ends of the life spectrum. The stories he heard from his hospice patients felt, as he says, like they wanted to be songs, so, encouraged by his wife, our daughter Elana, whoexhorted him to “Start writing!” he did just that.

What emerged was Life Review consisting of 13 or 14 songs, built around a plot involving a novice chaplain, who, through many deep encounters with patients which include some bone head missteps, learns how to ease their final days. I should point out that Life Review is a term of practice in the hospice world, referring to the ways in which staff engages patients to tell the story of the path that has led them to this point in their lives.

Truth to tell, our initial reaction to the title and to the whole concept of the project, was, let’s say, mixed. Who is going to be drawn to such a dark topic, particularly those theater goers who are looking for a night of diversion. As my late father-in-law said after seeing West Side Story, “Who needs more of that mess?” But the theater – particularly the musical theater – has moved beyond the frothy material of past eras to encompass such topics as suicide, depression and autism. (I’m sure the theater fans among you can attach the title of a successful show to each of these topics.) So, why not add to this somber list the end game experiences that will eventually become part of all of our stories?

Ben has been at this venture for more than ten years now. Most theater goers don’t realize that the works they’re watching from their balcony seats have been in development for as long as a decade. That’s the case, for example, with Alicia Keys’s recent hit Hell’s Kitchen. It’s just like the career trajectories of so many artists, performers and writers who seem to have emerged full-blown from the head of Zeus, while, in fact, they have been laboring in the dark for many years before the breakthrough.  In Ben’s case, first there were the lyrics for random disconnected songs, which were then farmed out to composers to be set to music. A script to tie the songs together into a coherent narrative went through many iterations, requiring the jettisoning of many that just didn’t fit or proved not to be of the same quality as the survivors. The testing grounds were song writing workshops and retreats, as well as talent nights where Ben could try out individual pieces.

Finally, just before Covid, the full play was ready for production, with a full cast of six or so performers eager to be onstage, no matter how meager the compensation. Rounding up cast members and convening them for rehearsals meant that the venue had to be close to home, in this case Columbia, Maryland. I’ve only seen a video of this production, which was still a concert version – no sets, no costumes, with action only implied by the words of the singers each in front of their music stands. Still, it was moving to witness it all come together and to see and hear the enthusiastic audience reactions.

Since then, it’s been just the one-man cabaret-style versions of Life Review, a COVID-era creation, which Ben was invited to perform at the Asheville Fringe Festival, as well as at several places close to home. Until he can catch the attention of a producer with the resources to mount a full production as it was originally conceived, he’s going to have to stick with the one-man, eight song version.

And it’s that cabaret version that Ben proposed about six months ago to bring to our apartment for a house concert. If you’ve never been to a house concert, they are sweet intimate events with audiences that can run between,say,10 and 35 people. They’re ways for performers to satisfy their hunger to perform and, if they’re lucky, can produce a little bit of pocket change.

We were terrified by Ben’s proposal. Did he have an inflated sense of our social network on which he was depending to generate an audience for his two proposed shows? And what if they didn’t like it? How would it complicate our relationships with the friends who had forked over some cash on the basis of their friendships with us?

Ben’s cheery optimism often provides a healthy counterbalance to our “realistic” pessimism which runs in a gloomier direction and risks stifling promising ideas before they have a chance to take flight. In this case, Ben’s upbeat take came out on top and brought more than 40 people to the two nights of Memorial Day weekend.  His entrepreneurial efforts resulted in a sponsorship for the second night by a group called the Happ Foundation which supports hospice work in Illinois. It was especially confirming to have hospice professionals in the audience who were the best possible judges of how well the show evoked the real feel of hospice work. The show opens with a surprisingly light and irreverent number called “Everybody’s Got to Die Sometime,” reminiscent of my favorite headline from the pages of The Onion, which read “Mortality Rate Holds Steady at 100%.” The hospice workers loved it, as did the rest of the audience, and it was clear sailing after that.

In reflecting with Ben about the success of the evenings, we placed the experience in our apartment in the context of the phenomenon of the incredible wave of performances that occur daily across the country and the world – community theaters, high school and college performances, small bands playing in local bars. It’s the essence of democracy. Very few, if any, of the participating performers will ever achieve any fame or riches from their efforts, but they are bringing pleasure to themselves and their audiences and helping to provide the glue that binds communities together. It’s both inspiring and daunting to think about all the talent represented by these groups, most of which will never rise beyond its present level – and don’t aspire to. I have no idea what lies ahead for Life Review or for any future endeavors by Ben, but it sure made for a memorable weekend.

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Marv Hoffman

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