Can schools afford music? Bet your bottom dollar

`OVERTURE!'' boomed the director from his aisle seat. Never mind that a jean-jacketed teen-ager was still balancing atop a chair onstage, stapling up the ``New York Municipal Orphanage'' sign. Never mind that two of the key orphans were absent. With opening night approaching, the rehearsal of the Medomak Valley High School production of the Broadway musical ``Annie'' had a momentum all its own. That momentum had been building for months. Director Rick Ash noted that more than 125 of the school's 679 students were involved in the production, which opened the last week of October.

The result: a runaway success, drawing 400 people to each of nine performances, grossing $12,500, and leaving behind a $3,000 ``profit'' for the school's arts program and another $1,000 worth of reusable equipment.

Fortunately, no one seems to have told Medomak of the discouraging trends in public school involvement in the arts. In recent years, the nation's public-school students have often been characterized as apathetic - or as being immersed in after-school jobs. The schools themselves have been faulted for trimming extracurricular activities. School budgets, too, have come under fire, as the nation's public-school costs have risen (from an average of $388 per pupil in 1955 to $4,300 in 1986-87) while the number of 14- to 24-year-olds has shrunk (from 20.8 percent of the population in 1975 to 17.6 percent in 1986). Arts programs, sometimes seen as frills, have taken a beating: Some fairly new schools have no auditoriums, while others hang on to music and drama programs through the efforts of a few overworked teachers.

Medomak seems to have been spared these problems, or has overcome them. Last year the high school staged ``Peter Pan'' - at a cost (including the flying stunts, organized by a Las Vegas firm) of $14,374.48. Packing the house with six performances, and mounting some related fund-raising projects, they took in more than $20,000 - repaying the $10,000 budgeted by the School Committee and contributing the remainder to a refurbishing of the auditorium.

The five towns in this sprawling, sparsely populated midcoast school district - Warren, Waldoboro, Washington, Union, and Friendship - could have hardly been expected to provide an artsy milieu. The nearest television stations, in Portland and Bangor, both consider the area beyond their range. The nearest newspaper, in Rockland, uses its Waldoboro slot as a steppingstone for correspondents moving upward. ``We are in a void here,'' chuckles Mr. Ash, the school's drama teacher, ``in the middle of a valley where nobody looks down.''

More than that, he says, the population is ``a real mix.'' Fishermen from Friendship and farmers from Washington mingle with well-educated newcomers seeking a rural Maine life style. ``We're faced with the incredible job of trying to educate second- and third-generation clamdiggers,'' says Ash, ``as well as people who may end up going to the Ivy League schools.''

So it's not a district where folks have lots of money. What they have, instead, is dedication. Take the case of Amy Snyder, the lanky, dimpled eighth-grader whose bubbly manner and true singing voice made her an ideal Annie. The principal of her junior high school rearranged her classes so her mother could pick her up early each day and drive her 20 miles to the high school in time for the rehearsals.

The good news is that the arrangement worked: Amy was the only one in her class with straight A's at midquarter. The bad news was that she grew two inches since she was cast last spring - which meant that senior Harrison Ankers, who willingly shaved his head to a gleaming dome for his role as Daddy Warbucks, had to wear two-inch elevator shoes with his tuxedo.

Such commitment takes a long time to build. Ash arrived in 1981, when the Medomak drama program had fallen on hard times. Still remembered, however, was a dazzling production of ``Godspell'' some years earlier.

``It took me about four years,'' he says, to build a new record of success. He now works closely with the school's music director, Allan Gifford, who welds whatever instrumental talent he can find into a pit band. And he sings the praises of art teacher Ann Lenardson, who supervised the creation of this year's thrust stage, with four separate acting spaces.

``Her sets are sculptures, works of art,'' exclaims Ash. ``Part of the reason our budgets are so high is because of what she spends on scenery. However, the skills that the children learn in there are life skills that they'll take with them forever.'' Working together, these teachers put on three major productions each year: the fall musical, a winter one-act series, and a spring dinner-theater weekend with food prepared by a nearby resort hotel.

The musical, however, takes center stage. What makes it a success? Superintendent David R. Gaul attributes it to ``a concerted effort'' in the school system to support the arts. Since the high school's last big accomplishment - a basketball championship a decade ago - the district has steadily increased its support of the arts, adding new courses in fine arts and drama and new staff to the music program. ``We still think the athletics are extremely important, and we promote them,'' he says. ``But we give the drama and the music more of an equal status.''

For Medomak principal Ronald E. Dolloff, the success resides in the broad mix of students attracted to the production. ``I like the large involvement of music people, drama kids, construction people, tech people,'' he says. Even the athletes participate: In last year's ``Peter Pan,'' the Indians from Never-Never Land were played by the entire girls' soccer team. ``It's not the same group of kids all the time,'' he notes.

School board chairman Elizabeth Wooster agrees. As the mother of a high-school student, she sees the large-scale effort of a musical as a way to ``break up some of the cliques in the school.''

Another ingredient for success, says Mrs. Wooster, arises from the nature of this community. None of the five towns, she says, has a strong downtown. ``There's no shopping section. There's no place for kids to hang out.'' Instead, they gravitate toward the school. ``I think something like this, and Mr. Ash's being here, allows them a place to get these creative energies out,'' she says.

Not every school district, of course, has such a unique set of disadvantages to turn into assets. So what advice has Medomak for other schools looking for a successful drama program?

``They need an administration that's willing to go to the school board and say, `This is important; the students will benefit from participating in it,''' says Gaul.

And the future? Ash is already searching for next fall's production. Will it be a musical? His principal hopes so. The students are now so thoroughly enthused, says Mr. Dolloff, that ``we're not going to be able not to have musicals.''

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