by Jenn Davis
[About a year-and-a-half ago, my mother moved to an assisted living residence in Bethesda, Maryland. There are a few theater vets (as well as some writers in various genres) among the residents, and there’s a play-reading group that presents performances periodically. But to my knowledge, no one at Mother’s residence has actually written a musical for and about the community. This story is about just such a writer-composer, Phyllis Zeno, at a nearby retirement community doing just that—thereby proving, among other things, that theater’s not limited by age or surroundings and that you can find inspiration for the stage just about anywhere you look.]
Take one Gaithersburg retirement community, residents who have a desire to act, and mix it with an 88-year-old professional songwriter, and you have the makings for a humorous original work.
Asbury Methodist Village resident Phyllis W. Zeno wrote, composed and produced “Village Life: The Musical,” sharing a humorous perspective of life in the Gaithersburg retirement community. Zeno, 88, moved to Asbury with her husband in the spring of 2013, and soon after she realized she had the material for a great performance.
“At that point, after living here for a few months, I realized that there were a lot of funny things to write about,” she said. “Any kind of resident complaints, I took a positive view and turned them into songs. After I wrote several, I thought this was a perfect place to write a show about residential living and retirement.”
The musical, which was an hour and 15 minutes long with no intermission, included 15 scenes, 13 songs and two sketches, Zeno said.
The material for one of the songs, “Food for Thought,” stemmed from a situation Zeno first encountered when she was moving into the community. At the time, the kitchen in her building has been closed for renovations, upsetting some residents who worried that the food selections would diminish during the construction.
“‘I would never give a raspberry to any food at Asbury. In my opinion, every meal’s divine. Any flaw, I’ll overlook it, long as I don’t have to cook it. Anything they want to serve me is just fine,’” Zeno’s lyrics joked.
Performances were held on May 9 and May 10 at the community’s Rosborough Cultural Arts and Wellness Center, packing in a full crowd of about 285 guests both nights, Zeno said. Admission was free and open to village residents only, because of space.
“We had people in line who had not booked a reservation ahead of time,” she said. “We had to turn away a lot of people.”
Zeno held the first casting call for the musical on Jan. 23, drawing 64 of her village neighbors to audition. The only requirement was that participants had to stand up for the entire show and sing the songs from memory. Although it was a challenge for some, Zeno said, 41 residents — many in their 80s and 90s — joined the production.
Thirty two-hour rehearsals were held in the months preceding the musical’s debut. They started out on a weekly basis, and then increased up to three times per week toward the end.
“The amazing thing about this is that these people who volunteered to be in it, their enthusiasm never flagged from the beginning until the end,” she said.
Zeno recalled one Thursday morning in February when a big snowstorm had blanketed the region. Thinking no one would show up for rehearsal, Zeno canceled it. After finding out that 15 participants had trudged through the snowy campus for the practice, she rushed downstairs and held the rehearsal.
Neighbor Sylva McCulloh, the pianist and musical director, said she was approached by Zeno almost a year ago to play the show’s music. Even though she wasn’t sure at first, McCulloh said it turned out to be a wonderful experience.
“[Zeno] is amazing. Her lyrics are priceless and she was fun to work with,” she said. “It was good for the people out here to have something like this to look forward to.”
Zeno’s career in music writing began in the 1950s when her mother sent sheet music that she had written for high school and college shows to a popular band leader in New York City.
“I was just out of college and my mother hated to see my talents wasted,” Zeno said. She studied music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, The New School for Social Research, and the American Theatre Wing, the latter two of which are in New York City.
The music was submitted to Fred Waring, the host of CBS’ The Fred Waring Show. The show, which aired from 1949 to 1954, featured Waring and his choral group “The Pennsylvanians.” Soon after Zeno was offered a job to write for his weekly Sunday evening program.
After packing up her family and moving from Indiana to New York, Zeno worked for Waring’s show for a couple of years.
More than half a century later, Zeno is still writing music — albeit now with a different source of inspiration and a new crew.
Zeno said plans already are in the works for a new musical next year at Asbury. The hope for next year is to have three performances and invite the public to attend.
“At the end of the show, they were all eager to do next year’s show,” she said. “They’ll be kicking up their heels next year.”
[This article was published on 21 May 2014 in The Gazette: Maryland Community News [Gaithersburg, MD]; a similar article by Davis ran in the Local Living magazine section of the Washington Post on 29 May.]