I’m one of those guys who thinks that too much exposure to Broadway show tunes can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, inflammation, stomach pain and blotchy skin. Please use only as directed, by a qualified stage director. Last Thursday was different. I was privileged to be among a select audience invited to hear a recital of songs performed by inmates of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The roles were reversed, and we were the captive audience. I was curious to see if music could survive there, on a diet of frozen meatloaf and spaghetti.
The place is a maximum security prison, so first we had to wait on line to be processed. That means we empty everything out of our pockets, and store our cellphones in a locker. Mine is still in there, but it’s up for parole in six months.
They waved us with those metal detector wands. I remember when security guards used to search you manually, and I almost got myself taken down plenty of times when I got too fidgety during the pat down. It would be so ironic to get tased for being ticklish, when there are so many other good reasons to tase me. There was no cavity search, but I had just been to the dentist the week before. After I was processed I felt a little better, like cheese but without the holier than thou attitude.
Then it was showtime. The songs were presented in a cafe setting, which the inmates had painted and decorated themselves. They offered a sentence or two about the artist or the songwriter, and “sentence” is not a word to toss around lightly here. They belted out songs by Carole King, Johnny Cash and Leonard Bernstein. They covered “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “The Color Purple.” They poked a little fun at themselves with “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and provided some situationally-updated lyrics for “If I Were a Rich Girl.”
The girls were fantastic. All of them could carry a tune, although some carried it quite a bit farther than others. Judging by some of their reactions, some of the songs hit close to home, especially those about children, family and time lost. Led by Broadway veteran Anne Twomey Lloyd and ably accompanied by arranger/composer Michael Minard, they all shared a heartfelt enthusiasm, and a genuine feeling that special moments in life are found wherever you make them.
Prison is a pretty regimented place. Every note that is sung there has to fall in line and play by the rules. You can’t have quarter notes wandering around where only half notes are allowed, and you can’t have a rest in the middle of a measure unless it is approved in advance. And yet even in a highly regulated environment, music rose from the auditorium. What probably seemed like growing a tree on the dark side of the moon when they started, blossomed into a magnolia by showtime.
The program was made possible by Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a non-profit organization that runs programs in New York prisons through which inmates can express themselves through the arts and transform their lives from outwardly based to inwardly based.
These are women who have done bad things in their lives, and there are those who would question why we should point resources in their direction, when so many other sectors of society go without. It’s a good question, as austerity sucks the arts out of school and community budgets. The answer lies in the fact that most prison inmates eventually return to a life outside these walls. And while they are inside them, they can either learn skills that will make them better at what they did before, or they can learn self-discovery and self-worth. That choice is mostly up to us.
If music follows these women around for the rest of their lives, it has been proven more likely that that the police will follow someone else. I’d like to thank them for an enjoyable evening, and I’d also like to thank them for not singing “Tomorrow,” because you can bet your bottom dollar that I’d be singing that damn thing until somebody locks ME up and throws away the key.
Learn more about RTA or get involved at rta-arts.org. Say hello to Rick Melén at firstname.lastname@example.org.