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Broadway icon leads Variety's inclusive 'Little Mermaid' show, calls it 'extraordinary environment'

Joining host Don Marsh (at left) for Tuesday's discussion were (from center left) four-time Tony nominee Terrence Mann, Variety CEO Jan Albus and Variety teen performer Selah Harris.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Musical-theater aficionados likely associate four-time Tony nominee Terrence Mann with the original Rum Tum Tugger of “Cats,” Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables” or perhaps one of the titular characters in “Beauty and the Beast.” Now the acclaimed actor is diving into yet another key role – this one on a St. Louis stage that will take him under the sea as King Triton.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, while taking a break from rehearsals for Variety Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Little Mermaid,” Mann joined host Don Marsh for a conversation alongside two St. Louisans who are also involved in the show.

Teenage performer Selah Harris was one of them, and when Marsh asked her what it’s like to work with someone as esteemed as Mann, Harris described the opportunity as “really amazing” in terms of boosting her drive and confidence as a young performer.

“People look at me and think – not everyone, but people generally – think that people with disabilities are lower than other people,” said Harris, who uses a wheelchair in her own day-to-day life. “But the opportunity that I get to perform with someone like [Terrence Mann] shows me … there’s not much that I can’t do.”

Mann was quick to chime in on the latter point, emphasizing that he’s already become convinced during in his time in St. Louis that Harris can do anything she sets her mind to.

“I’m not sure there is much that Selah could learn from me or anybody else – she’s on her way, she’s as good as it gets,” he said. “She’s an actor, she’s funny, she knows what’s going on out there.

“And all of the kids that are involved with Variety ... I’ve just been amazed at their commitment to it and the fact that you only gotta tell them one time, ‘Go here and do this,’ and everybody knows exactly what they’re doing, where they’re supposed to be, know when to sing, when to dance, when to be funny. It’s an extraordinary environment for them to be able to realize that they can do anything they want to do.”

Variety’s chief executive officer, Jan Albus, noted that the organization’s theater program operates with that very goal in mind, including children of all abilities in a production that is truly the real deal when it comes to musical theater.

“So we’re doing classic musical-theater productions like you always see – with a professional cast, full orchestra, the whole nine yards,” Albus explained. “It just so happens that the children’s chorus is made up of children of all abilities. And they are folded in within this beautiful show, and as soon as the scene happens, as soon as it starts, you just realize that they belong. It’s important to belong.”

Variety Theatre expands horizons for children on – and beyond – the stage

Variety Theatre is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary as part of the larger Variety organization, which has been active in the region for more than 80 years.

“Our mission is to serve children with disabilities from the time they’re born until they’re 21, every time they need it,” Albus said. “And we have nine specific programs that we do this with – one of them is performing arts … and the whole goal is to give these children skills, socialization, independence and self-confidence, no matter what the program may be.”

When Mann first learned of the organization and its request through his agent, what he found online impressed him.

“I saw Jan Albus’ name, and I went, ‘Yeah, I want to go do this.’ It was just all for the right reasons and that right time,” Mann explained. “And I’ve always been involved with the National Dance Institute in New York City, and I have kids of my own. And so, like I said, the timing was right, and Jan and I talked, and after I talked to her I was completely smitten.”

With just a little over week until the show opens at the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Touhill Performing Arts Center, the Broadway star said that one of big reminders he will take with him back to New York is “we’re all the same.”

“Every time I stand there on the stage while we’re doing this production and I see everybody … we all are arriving to do the same kind of storytelling whether we’re tall or short or special needs,” Mann said. “It’s just a reaffirmation of faith in humanity that we need so much right now.”

And for Harris, the production has been a big lesson in persistence.

“I think the way I’ve grown most is knowing that this thing is not going to come easy for me, because I’m in a wheelchair, and it’s hard, because [there] are some things that I need to learn and work harder than other people to learn,” she said. “So I think the thing that I’ve learned most is to never give up. … I haven’t, and now I’m here on my fifth production with Variety Theatre [and] with Terrence Mann.”

Related Event
What: The Little Mermaid
When: Thursday, October, 18, through Sunday, October 21, 2018
Where: UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center (1 University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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