Westenberg back in Broadway spotlight during “Into the Woods” reunion

Long before he became the Artistic Director of Drury University’s theater programs, Robert Westenberg could boast of a successful career on Broadway, television and film. Today he’s found a new love directing and mentoring students, but he was recently pulled back into the Broadway spotlight in an unusual way – for the reunion of the classic Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Into the Woods.” Coincidentally, a film version of “Into the Woods” starring Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep and others opens in theaters nationwide this month.

The Tony Award-winning show is a mash-up of classic Grimm’s fairy tales, interwoven with a plot about a baker and his wife as they wish to have a child. Having previously worked with Sondheim and Lapine in their production of “Sunday in the Park with George,” Westenberg was brought on as an original cast member of “Into the Woods” when it debuted on Broadway in 1987. He had dual roles as both the Wolf and Prince Charming. Other notable cast members included Bernadette Peters as the Witch, Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife and Springfield native Kim Crosby as Cinderella. (In their own version of “happily ever after,” Crosby and Westenberg first met while working on the show and eventually married.)

Original Broadway cast members of "Into the Woods," including Robert Westenberg at left.

Original Broadway cast members of “Into the Woods,” including Robert Westenberg at left.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the show’s final performance, the cast reunited for one night on stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in southern California last month. Humorist Mo Rocca moderated interviews with the creators and cast, who performed selected songs and scenes. A second show was added due to demand and the audience included at least a few fans were are stars in their own right, including no less than Barbra Streisand. Besides several glowing reviews from the LA Times, Wall Street Journal and others, the raucous reaction from a packed house took everyone involved by surprise – proving that the musical’s cult following remains as strong as ever.

We spoke to Westenberg shortly afterward about the musical, the reunion and the performance.

 

Q: How was the reunion? What was it like to reconnect with these greats?

Fantastic. I did that show for two years, and I had not seen some of those people for almost the full 25 years since we closed. And it was exactly the same as when we left off – it was as comfortable as you’d be with your family. We know each other like you’d know a brother or sister. We worked for years together day after day after day. It was just a wonderful mix of mutual respect. So the reunion aspect was spectacular.

Q: What about the performance aspect of it all? I know there was no small amount of preparation involved…

It was fun. Rehearsing it was fun. Stressful, but fun. We had two shows. The first show had a certain magic to it for us in the cast. It was extraordinarily scary because we didn’t know how it was going to be received. Mo Rocca was someone we’d just met. He’s incredibly good. Very genial, and does his homework. He’s also quick on his feet – he was just feeding off of everyone.

As we began there was a blackout, and you heard the iconic voice of the narrator from the album, say “Once Upon a Time…” And the audience – it was an explosion that was hard to describe – 3,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs. We thought ‘Oh my God.’ We were rock stars for that moment in time. I thought, ‘You know what, I know I’m not a rock star, but I’m going to eat this up. I’m going to enjoy this.’

The performance itself was stressful for me because I had a cold in the weeks before. So I was nervous as hell, but when the number was over it was like I’d found the cure for cancer. It was insanity. I’m just a Joe Blow who mows his lawn every week and comes to work. I don’t perceive myself in that way in any way shape or form. Then to have people perceive you that way is bizarre. It’s fun and unrealistic, but a kick in the pants.

Westenberg sings and acts with Joanna Gleason, who played the Baker's Wife, during the reunion.

Westenberg sings and acts with Joanna Gleason, who played the Baker’s Wife, during the reunion.

Q: Why do you think “Into the Woods” has had such enduring appeal?

Jim and Steve talked about that during the reunion. They were pleased at its strength and longevity and the fact that it’s one of the most-produced shows in high schools across the country. It’s large enough to be able to contain a variety of different viewpoints. If you ask one particular person what “What Into the Woods” is, their interpretation could be wildly different than somebody else’s.

Q: Stephen Sondheim is a Broadway legend. What is it about his style and his body of work that people have connected with over the years?

I find him utterly compelling. He loves plot-driven, situational writing. Actors love to do Sondheim because his characters are almost always solving a problem, and that’s actable. There’s an action connected to it. As Bernadette put in it at the reunion, with Steve, you just have to go where he takes you and go there fully. He will lead you, ultimately, where the character is supposed to go. One of his main thematic motifs is that he always works from the specific. He believes the universal can only be achieved when you’re coming from the specific because that’s what people recognize. It’s in the details that people see themselves.

Q: What was the biggest surprise for you in all of this?

I’ve worked with Sondheim a long time over a number of years. I love Steve and, man, do I respect him. He’s a bona fide genius, and true artist and a true professional. But he is not warm and fuzzy. But there was a different Steve there. There was a humanity to him that was abundant. A softening. There was a moment at the end of the second show when Mo asked what this has meant. (Sondheim) said, ‘It’s upsetting – I don’t want it to ever end.’ There were three of us who put our hands on his shoulders, and his head went down. It was powerful.

Cast members listen as legendary composer Stephen Sondheim speaks during a panel discussion.

Cast members listen as legendary composer Stephen Sondheim speaks during a panel discussion.

Q: How do experiences like this and your prior career help bring the study of theater to life for your students?

My job is to create a truly pre-professional atmosphere here, fully integrated with the liberal arts and fully cross-pollinated with all the other disciplines. But at the same time we are deeply focused on making sure the skills and the craft and the opportunities that are provided here are something that will translate into the real world. What I’ve done is basically cherry picked from my 30-plus years of experience and training to deliver what I think are real world applications. These are things that are doable, that are not so esoteric or so limited to the privileged few who have the talent. It’s a blue-collar approach to acting.

Q: Does that point get driven home a bit more when you’re whisked away for an event like this reunion?

Hopefully it gives me a little more street cred and gives a little more weight to what I say, but also I hope it gives students a role model in terms of what’s achievable. It’s not some pie in the sky level of stardom. It’s not about stardom. It’s about work. It’s about technique. It’s about this whole class of working actors who live in New York or elsewhere and are in show after show and make a living at it.

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Interview by Mike Brothers, Director of Media Relations. All photos by Doug Gifford.

Vietnam veteran earns art degree — and respect from faculty

Drury art student Richard Hunter is proof that it’s never too late to learn something new. The 64-year-old graduated on Dec. 13 with an art degree. Hunter is a retired Vietnam veteran, and though he doesn’t consider himself a natural artist, he certainly has made an impression on his professors and classmates.

This year he received the Boyko Weltanschauung Award, which is presented to students who have made the biggest impact on art department faculty, and challenge instructors to re-examine their teaching strategies and think about why they teach. Hunter is just the second recipient in 11 years.

“As one of our older students, I find him completely open to critiques of his works and is one of the hardest working students that I have ever known,” said Rebecca Miller, a photography professor. “His life experiences bring so much to the classroom that he will be one of those students I will remember fondly for years to come because of his positive outlook on life.”

Richard Hunter in the ceramics workshop at Pool Art Center.

Richard Hunter in the ceramics workshop at Pool Art Center.

Hunter prefers working with ceramics and photography. As a beekeeper, he’s particularly inspired by bees and the hexagon shapes they make, which he’s incorporated into his art. He is also drawn to graffiti art and has photographed the traveling artwork on trains rolling through town.

One of Hunter’s biggest inspirations is his younger classmates.

“One of things I’ve absolutely loved is that I get to be around young artists and that I have had a chance to see art through their eyes,” said Hunter. “Being with young artists makes me feel young again! It stirs up my imagination.”

Hunter has also enjoyed working on the art department’s annual Veterans Day tradition of taking portrait photos of veterans free of charge. He would eventually like to start a volunteer art therapy program to aid disabled veterans.

“Art really helps disabled veterans to relax and seems to help heal people both mentally and physically,” said Hunter. “I just want to share what I have learned and maybe even learn from them.”

Hunter appreciated that his professors adjusted to his learning style and worked with him on an individual basis. The small school environment made him feel comfortable, he says.

“The teachers have really bent over backward to inspire me, encourage me to do good work and look at my art in different ways,” he says. “They’re willing to be more personal and they’re willing to listen.”

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Story by Kaleigh Jurgensmeyer, English and Writing major at Drury. A version of this story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.

Drury awards degrees to more than 300 graduates at winter commencement

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Dec. 13, 2014 — Drury University awarded degrees to 339 graduates at its winter commencement ceremonies today. There were 302 undergraduate degrees and 32 graduate degrees conferred by both the traditional Day School the College of Continuing Professional Studies. Some students earned multiple degrees.

Dr. John Jungmann, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, was the keynote speaker. A native of Lamar, Jungmann began his tenure at SPS in July following stints as superintendent for Liberty Public Schools and the Monett R-1 School District.

Jungmann urged the class of 2014 to innovate, give back and live life to its fullest. Innovation has always driven the economy and provides opportunities for creative thinkers to lead, he told the graduates, while giving is a matter of responsibility and repaying the gifts they’ve received.

Dr. John Jungmann speaks to the Drury Class of 2014.

Dr. John Jungmann speaks to the Drury Class of 2014.

“I can safely predict that each of you didn’t get here today on your own,” Jungmann said. “A friend, teacher, mentor or parent gave their dollars, time, words of encouragement or maybe even just a pat on the back. It’s critical that you pay this forward. Giving is contagious.”

Finally, Jungmann asked today’s graduates to act, rather than simply observe, as they move into the next phase of their lives.

“We need graduates willing to get out and live a life of engagement. Our country cannot afford to have citizens who live a life of apathy,” he said. “Get out and live a life of purpose and passion that impacts our world.”

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Drury forms academic partnership with Kansas City’s Barstow School

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Dec. 12, 2014 — The leaders of Drury University and the Barstow School in Kansas City signed a memorandum of understanding Thursday that will help bolster both schools’ commitment to academic excellence and engaged global learning.

Barstow is an independent, co-educational college preparatory school in Kansas City. Founded in 1884, the school boasts a rich academic tradition, with a special commitment to international learning through affiliate schools in China, Japan, Germany and Australia.

Dr. David Manuel, Drury President, and Shane Foster, Head of the Barstow School in Kansas City.

Dr. David Manuel, Drury President, and Shane Foster, Head of the Barstow School in Kansas City.

The agreement will streamline admission of Barstow graduates into Drury University and create a collaborative learning partnership between the two schools. The partnership will meet the needs of a growing community of Barstow students across the globe who desire a first-rate American education, and it will deepen Drury’s commitment to diversity and international enrollment. About 12 percent of Drury’s current student body hails from 51 foreign countries.

Major points of the partnership include:

  • International students who are on track to complete their high school diploma from Barstow’s Kansas City campus or any of its international campuses – and who meet certain GPA, English proficiency and other requirements – will be guaranteed admission to Drury.
  • A Barstow/Drury Scholarship will be established for international students from the Barstow School who meet admission criteria. Scholarships will range from $1,000 to $3,000 annually and can be added to other earned academic awards.
  • Drury faculty will travel to Barstow’s Shanghai and Ningbo campuses in China to offer advanced instruction in subjects not often taught in China, such as creative writing. Drury faculty will act as professors in residence on each campus during January intersessions, and will be selected for participation and travel to China on a competitive basis.
  • The schools will develop summer immersion experiences for international Barstow students on Drury’s campus in Springfield. These residential experiences will include an introduction to the American system of higher education and the American experience. The programs will be led by Drury faculty and could include a wide range of cultural and social activities.

“Drury and Barstow have a common heritage through our founding in the liberal arts tradition, and a shared vision for global education in the 21st century,” said Dr. David Manuel, Drury’s president. “This partnership will give Barstow’s international students an avenue to continue their American education in a familiar setting, and it gives Drury access to an outstanding pool of bright and highly dedicated young minds.”

Media contacts: Mike Brothers, Drury’s Director of Media Relations, (417) 873-7390 or mikebrothers@drury.edu; or Kellye Crocket, Director of Admission & Marketing at the Barstow School, (816)  277-0413 or kellye.crockett@barstowschool.org.

Signature projects land Drury on the 2014 Community Service Honor Roll

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Dec. 11, 2014 — Drury University has been selected for inclusion on the 2014 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. The Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency for volunteering and service, administers the award as a way of highlighting the vital role colleges and universities play in addressing community needs.

Three Drury projects were submitted as outstanding examples of community engagement, including:

  • The Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Joplin’s Cunningham Park, a memorial and place of healing following the devastating 2011 tornado. The project involved students and faculty from the Design/Build program at the Hammons School of Architecture as well as the music therapy, psychology and English programs plus many other external partners.
  • The Drury Scholars Program, which has provided academic and cultural enrichment for local African-American middle school and high school students, with the goal of placing them on a path toward college admission. Numerous Drury faculty members and staff from across the university participate.
  • Art Inspired, a nonprofit that provides employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities who might not otherwise be able to work. Art Inspired was co-developed by Drury’s Enactus team in collaboration with Abilities First.

“Drury students, faculty and staff are highly engaged in the community, and choosing just three projects to submit to for consideration was a difficult task,” said Courtney Swan, director of community outreach and leadership development at Drury. “A common thread in each of these projects is that they will all help bring about lasting change in one way or another by affecting people’s lives in personal and meaningful ways.”

In 2013, Drury students provided more than 139,000 service hours to people and organizations in Springfield and the Ozarks. In 2014, the university began publishing an annual Community Engagement Report to highlight many of those efforts.

Nationwide, college students make a significant contribution to their communities through volunteering and service, according to the most recent Volunteering and Civic Life in America report. In 2012, 3.1 million college students dedicated more than 118 million hours of service across the country — a contribution valued at $2.5 billion.

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SPS Superintendent Dr. John Jungmann to speak at Drury’s winter commencement

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Dec. 8, 2014 — Drury University will confer 358 degrees to graduates during its winter commencement ceremony at 10 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 13 at the O’Reilly Family Event Center.

Dr. John Jungmann, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, will deliver the commencement address. Jungmann took over leadership of the state’s largest public school district in July. His previous experience includes serving one year as superintendent and one year as deputy superintendent for Liberty Public Schools and four years as superintendent of the Monett R-1 School District. A native of Lamar, Jungmann began his educational career as a high school teacher and has served as an assistant high school principal and middle school principal.

Dr. John Jungmann

Dr. John Jungmann

Professional accolades include being recognized by his peers as the 2009-2010 New Superintendent of the Year and serving as president of the Missouri Association of School Administrators for the 2014-2015 school year. He is a 1998 graduate of Missouri Southern State University and obtained his Master of Science in education and Specialist in educational administration degrees from Missouri State University. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas in 2006.

Jungmann and his wife, Kerry, have three daughters.

Media: Members of the news media are invited to photograph or videotape the graduation ceremonies. Please contact Media Relations Director Mike Brothers about coverage plans or for more information about 2014 graduates.

Public contact: Dr. John Taylor, (417) 873-6356, jtaylor3@drury.edu.

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Drury appoints Dr. Steven Combs as Vice President for Academic Affairs

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Dec. 8, 2014 — Drury University has appointed Dr. Steven C. Combs as its next Vice President for Academic Affairs. He begins January 26.

“Dr. Combs has accumulated a breadth of academic experience that is complemented by a depth of knowledge and implementation achievements,” said Drury president Dr. David Manuel. “I am particularly pleased that he fully grasps and believes in the mission of Drury University and he will be a great asset to help Drury integrate the liberal arts and professional studies in the 21st Century.”

“Drury University has a tradition of excellence that I have been aware of since I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas,” Combs said. “From its exceptional faculty and staff to its committed alumni, administration and Board of Trustees, Drury has strong organizational DNA. I am delighted to stand shoulder to shoulder with this community, working together for something they love.”

Combs comes to Drury from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, a public comprehensive university, where he has spent the past year as founding dean of the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences. Prior to that, Combs was at Hawaii Pacific University from 2006 to 2013, where he served as dean of the College of Communication and later, founding dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. While in that role, he oversaw a 20 percent enrollment increase from 2009 to 2011 in the wake of the Great Recession. He led efforts to revise the curriculum to emphasize program relevance and distinctiveness. Combs worked closely with faculty to help them achieve their goals as scholars, and he helped secure more than $2.7 million in grants – accounting for nearly 70 percent of HPU’s externally funded projects.

Dr. Steven Combs

Dr. Steven Combs

“My approach to leadership focuses on people and the organizational culture.  We all have differing gifts,” Combs said. “I hope to work with the faculty and administrative staff to bring forth their unique talents in ways that make them excited to come to campus every day.”

Combs holds a Ph.D. in Communication Arts & Sciences from the University of Southern California and a master of arts in communication studies from the University of Kansas.

Combs succeeds longtime VPAA Dr. Charles Taylor, who will return to teaching communication and rhetoric full time in fall 2015 following a spring sabbatical. The VPAA position is the top academic post at the University, reporting directly to the president.

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Alum’s tech company makes holiday shopping a little easier

An up-and-coming technology company co-founded by 2001 Drury alumnus Nathan Pettyjohn is making holiday shopping a little easier for many this year.

Aisle411 is an in-store mobile marketing platform that allows shoppers to search and navigate products and offers within a store. It also helps retailers and brands by decreasing the number of store walkouts by frustrated customers who cannot find the product they are looking for. Pettyjohn says that retailers can lose a substantial amount of sales from these walkouts.

“The light bulb moment came when I was in a home improvement store — I was looking for a surge protector — and 3 associates sent me in 3 different directions,” Pettyjohn said. “I became so frustrated at the wasted time and thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if I could create Google Maps in retail stores?’”

Aisle411 received early support from the Springfield Angel Network through the Edward Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at Drury University, as well as other angel investor groups. Since its 2008 founding, the company has raised more than $10 million in venture capital. Toys ‘R’ Us and Walgreens are two of the retailers currently working with aisle411.

Pettyjohn said he has had an “entrepreneurial buzz” since he was a kid, and even had his own lawn mowing business when he was a teenager. His college professors also encouraged creativity and innovative thinking.

“My professors always said that you need to think about the next wave of marketing—it’s all going to change,” Pettyjohn said. “My background and education played a critical role in molding me into this thinking.”

The future of aisle411 looks bright. A growth plan is in place for the company to expand globally and use more retail analytics about shopper location, which will allow retailers to understand aisle traffic and establish the value on every shelf.

“The vision is to create this whole new, in-store media network,” said Pettyjohn.

Pettyjohn, who was honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award in October, credits his three years on Drury’s AD Team to helping him assess real world problems and find creative solutions with marketing.

“Starting this company has been really fun,” said Pettyjohn. “Drury definitely played a role in my success now.”

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Story by Kaleigh Jurgensmeyer, a senior English and writing major at Drury. A version of this story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. 

Works by African-American artist Synthia Saint James on exhibit in December and January

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Dec. 2, 2014 — Works by artist Dr. Synthia Saint James will be featured in a joint exhibition from Dec. 5 through Jan. 30 at the Pool Art Center Gallery, 940 N. Clay St., and the Drury on C-Street Gallery, 233 E. Commercial St.

Saint James is a painter, author, speaker and educator. She is best known for her work featured as the original cover art on the hardcover edition of Terry McMillan’s book Waiting to Exhale and for designing the first Kwanzaa stamp for the United States Postal Service.

"Juneteenth" by Synthia Saint James

“Juneteenth” by Synthia Saint James

The joint exhibit is titled “The Creative World of Synthia Saint James” and will open with a reception on Friday, Dec. 5 at both galleries (6-8 p.m. at Drury on C-Street and 6-9 p.m. at Pool Art Center). A Skype artist talk with Saint James will be held during the opening at the Pool Art Center from 6-7 p.m.

After the reception, viewing hours for the Pool Art Center are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Viewing hours for the C-Street Gallery will be 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday and Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays Dec. 6-13 and Jan. 20-30.

Artist website: http://www.synthiasaintjames.com

Media contacts: Leah Hamilton – Director, Arts Administration Program, (417) 873-6359 or lhamilton@drury.edu; and Greg Booker – Assistant Professor of Art, (417) 873-7203 or gbooker@drury.edu.

Display of Medieval documents draws parallel to today’s Information Age

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Dec. 1, 2014 — The Medieval and Renaissance Studies program at Drury University will hold a public viewing of medieval and early modern documents from noon to 1:45 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 3 in the Rare Book Room at Olin Library.

The collection of documents includes manuscript leaves on vellum and paper, as well as early printed books, some of which are in their original leather bindings. The oldest item on display is from the mid-13th century, and the oldest book in the display was printed in 1492. Campus and community members are welcome to come and go at their leisure. The display will be a learning experience for students to compare these documents to today’s world of texting, tweeting and updating.

William Garvin, university archivist and interim director of the Olin Library, says viewers will get a sense of the sweeping change that took place during the span of time represented in the display.

“Those changes are similar to the digital information revolution that we’ve lived through over the last thirty years,” Garvin says. “Think of it this way: to a great degree, the Protestant Reformation was possible because the printing press allowed the ideas of Luther and other reformers to ‘go viral’ throughout Europe. The technology of the printing press made that revolution possible, in the same way that social media technology has aided the revolutionary movements in the Arab Spring uprisings.”

Dr. Shelley Wolbrink, director of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program, says evidence suggests new and more visual methods of print and book making aided European dialogue on touchstone issues – for better or worse.

“I don’t think we take the same care with communication today, and I wonder where this will leave historians of the greats — like presidents — and the ordinary — like husbands and wives,” Wolbrink says. “I hope witnessing an artifact firsthand will help others understand this period of history.”

Media Contact: William Garvin, university archivist, (417) 873-7482 or wgarvin@drury.edu.

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