Princeton show features songs of protest and peace

[Editor’s Note: Helen O’Shea was asked by the Princeton Public Library to produce a music event related Ken Burns’ PBS series on The Vietnam War, and the event took place at the Arts Council of Princeton on Jan. 20. Here is her account of it.— Jay Lustig]

When I was first approached by Janie Hermann of the Princeton Public Library to produce a music show to complement the Ken Burns series on The Vietnam War, I already understood the gravity of the task at hand. The challenge was to put together a show that, through music, captured the essence of the struggle during those troubled times between the young men heading into a devastating war and the peace protesters that they had to face on their return.

I pored over the songs of the era, listened to the soundtrack from the documentary and enlisted the help of my producing partner Richard Bozic (also the music director for the show) to select the best songs, vocalists and musicians to bring this important era of American history to life — both for those who have learned about it at school as well as those who lived through those difficult years.

We started rehearsals three months before the show with a six-piece band of outstanding musicians and vocalists (David Ross, Gerry Hazel, John Mazzeo, Marvin Perkins, FiL Wisneski, Jay Posipanko) in addition to four female vocalists (Katherine Wessinger-Bozic, Fiona Tyndall, Lauren Pelaia and myself) as well as a stage manager (Paul Bejgrowicz) for a cast of 12 people. It is rare to be able to bring together such a combination of talent, respect for the material and collaborative spirit, so Rich and I knew right away that there was something very special about this show.

1. Introducing the Band(video by Helen O’Shea)

As the show opened to a packed house, the hush in the room told us that something spiritual was taking place. This feeling was confirmed when I looked out at the audience in the opening verses of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to see grown men openly weeping and as we encouraged the crowd to join in on the choruses. The performers and audience truly became one as we were carried on a wave of solidarity to the very last note of the show.

2. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (video by Gerry Hazel)

Then the guys’ rousing, angry version of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” really struck a nerve with the crowd as Marvin Perkins, FiL Wisneski, John Mazzeo, Gerry Hazel pretty much blew the roof off the Arts Council of Princeton to warm, appreciative applause.

3. “Ohio” (video by Gerry Hazel)

As the closing number, John Lennon’s “Imagine” — with Lauren Pelaia and Fiona Tyndall — started to build, suddenly the entire room was on its feet and the message of the song floated out into the night in Princeton as we all knew we would never experience a moment or a show quite like that again.

4. “Imagine” (video by Gerry Hazel)

Thank you sincerely to the Princeton Public Library, the Arts Council of Princeton and our wonderful cast for an unforgettable and transformative experience …. we are all thrilled that there is interest in us performing this show again sometime in the future!

Thanks also to the National Endowment of the Humanities and the other funders and supporters of this series, including the American Library Association and PBS.

Photos from the performance can be found on the library’s flickr site at this link.

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