NEW YORK — Meryl Streep's eyes glisten as she stands in the wings waiting for her cue. She looks at the young students from East Harlem Public School, and instructs, "Now, everyone, take a deep breath."
That said, they follow her onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. Walking past the trio of world-class violinists, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Arnold Steinhardt, the students assume the correct position and confidently tuck their violins under their chins. The group begins playing Bach's Concerto in D Minor.
Cameras roll as music fills the hall and the performers reenact this scene from real life. The movie is "Music of the Heart," the true story of Roberta Guaspari, the teacher who has taught violin to hundreds of students in New York's East Harlem schools. When school budgets were cut in 1991, music was the first subject area to go. So the teacher and her students, former and current, banded together to stage a benefit at Carnegie Hall. They raised enough funds to continue the classes.
Streep plays Ms. Guaspari. As the actress recalls, "Standing on the stage at Carnegie Hall, I looked out on that golden circle with its ruby-red seats and felt this is one of the great moments in my life. I had spent six hours every day for two months learning to play the violin. Here I was being able to hold my own with these world-class musicians. I wasn't just barely limping along - I was up there playing a Bach concerto with the greats...."
Director Wes Craven had only two days to shoot the entire concert sequence. On the second day, he called through the bullhorn at 5 in the morning, "That's a wrap." Streep, euphoric from the performance, rushed up to Craven and said, "There's something about Carnegie Hall; it's like a temple of great art. Don't you feel the ghost of Toscanini hovering around?"
Catching her breath, she says, "I remember Wes looking at me [as if I were] insane. He'd been wrangling 2,000 extras, some of the world's most important musicians, and all these children that were going off in 20 directions. To him, it had been a crucible. To me, it was - 'wow this was fun!' "
"Music of the Heart" is more than a movie to Craven, who is known as the king of horror movies for directing thrillers such as "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream." He'd seen Allan Miller and Susan Kaplan's 1996 Academy Award nominated documentary on Guaspari, "Small Wonders," and was determined to make it into a movie. (See a review of "Music of the Heart," page 15.)
The story of making "Music of the Heart" is a drama of its own. It began with Madonna agreeing to play Guaspari and taking violin lessons for 10 weeks. Three weeks before production was to begin, she bowed out. It had been shaping up to be a great movie with Aidan Quinn, Gloria Estefan (making her film debut), and Angela Bassett in the cast.
"When Wes called me about the role," Streep explains, "I'd just made two movies, back to back, and I was tired and needed time to be with my four children." Then Craven wrote the 11-time Oscar nominated actress a personal letter. She was sitting in the living room reading his three-page letter, her eyes filling with tears, when her husband, sculptor Donald Gummer, walked into the room and asked what was wrong. "I've never before received a letter like this from any director. He's spilling out his heart," she said.
Craven explained why this film meant so much to him. He had been a teacher, and he'd seen how the arts made a difference in kids' lives. "His words seduced me," Streep confides. "I had to do the movie, but I needed time to learn to play the violin."
Right before Streep called to accept, movers were at Craven's offices carrying out the last filing case with all his notes and story boards. With her answer spinning in his head, he told the movers to put everything back. Craven got a two-month extension so that Streep could learn to play. New York Philharmonic violinist Sandy Park took time off to teach Streep.
"I got so discouraged. My neck ached, my fingers hurt," Streep sighs, "but Sandy was patient, and each day progressed me to another level.
"I thought in this age of high-tech computer graphics, they'll think of some way to make my playing look good. Probably I'll do the long shots, and they'll do a close-up of someone else's hands actually doing the finger work. No such luck!"
But there was more to this film than playing the violin. Guaspari "had a lot to overcome," Streep says, "her husband leaving her for her best friend, being a single mom, raising two young boys on a teacher's salary. It's been a challenging life, so it's a challenging role."
Now that the movie is completed and has received critical acclaim, what has Streep been up to? She's at home in New York, where she and her husband have just celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary. When she isn't going to soccer games with her son and three daughters, she's playing the violin. "I've played Carnegie Hall," she smiles. "Don't you think it's time I went back and learned the basics?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society