Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, May 27, 2018

mark-mazz-NEW YORK – Mark Mazzarella, an energetic and enthusiastic 50-year-old teacher, theater director and entrepreneur, was fresh off the train from Connecticut. He had just emerged from directing a student play – "John Lennon and Me" – at St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol, where he heads the much-lauded arts program; and he was preparing to submerge himself in rehearsals for his first New York directing assignment, "O Night Divine." This musical retelling of the nativity story has a book and lyrics by Blaze Kelly Coyle and music and lyrics by Leo Kirschner. "O Night Divine" which began performances on Dec. 8 at Theater at St. Peter’s in New York City.

Mr. Mazzarella said he landed this New York job after Ms. Coyle saw his student production of the musical "Smile" at St. Paul’s, and told him it was the best-produced high school musical she had ever seen. She then gave him her libretto for "O Holy Night" to read. He said the libretto sticks pretty close to the traditional nativity story of Joseph’s and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. She was able to take some musical theater theatrical license with the story’s supporting characters, such as the Three Wise Men, Balthazar, Melchior and Casper, who do a tap dance, and the villain King Herod. Ms. Coyle herself plays the dual role of Elizabeth and Queen Sapphira.

When Mr. Mazzarella first heard Mr. Kirschner’s pop/rock score for "O Night Divine," he said, it reminded him of the music of composer Alan Menken. Mr. Menken is best known for his music on many Disney animated features. Mr. Mazzarella said he hopes to do a student production of Mr. Menken’s stage adaptation of the hit film "Beauty and the Beast" at St. Paul’s in the spring.

Born in New Britain, Mr. Mazzarella started out as an art and design major at the University of Hartford and was a successful professional magician for several years. His specialty was replicating Houdini’s stunts; and at 18, he said, he was the youngest person ever to perform the master’s world-famous Chinese water torture act.

After a few years on the road, he returned to Connecticut and founded Mazzarella Media, a Southington-based educational media company, with older bothers Anthony and Thomas. His wife Lisa teaches first grade at Whiting Lane School in West Hartford; and the couple has two children, Matthew, 20; and Michael, 16.

Mark Mazzarella, a 1978 graduate of St. Paul’s, became involved with the school again when he went to watch Matthew in a student production of Barry Manilow’s "Copacabana" at the school.

"The show was not good, the kids’ morale was down and there were only about 50 people in the audience," he recalled. He began by volunteering his services to boost the kids’ spirits, then gave theater workshops and eventually staged some productions.

Mr. Mazzarella teaches one course three mornings a week at St. Paul’s and he now gets paid, though he gives most of his salary back to the school for his son Michael’s tuition, he said.

At first, because there were so few students in the arts program, he did only plays. When enrollment started to increase, he turned to musicals like "Pippin" and then "Smile" and, this past spring, "Peter Pan."

Cary M. Dupont, principal, said Mr. Mazzarella has had a "tremendous impact on the lives of the drama students" that goes far beyond theater and into every aspect of education.

He said of the performing arts program, "The St. Paul community and the external community recognize the quality of the productions [now], and that it’s an incredible bargain. They cannot believe that the productions they see are high school performances."

Budgets for Mr. Mazzarella’s shows at the school have increased from $5,000 for "Smile" to $30,000 for "Peter Pan," which required more elaborate sets and a special flying apparatus. "Peter Pan" sold out its four performances.

Of the approximately 300 kids enrolled at St. Paul’s, there are now more than 30 students in the program.

Despite the size of the program and the school’s limited arts funding resources, productions under Mr. Mazzarella’s direction have won numerous awards in Connecticut’s yearly student theater competitions. St. Paul’s graduates have also gone on to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Pace University in New York and other arts programs at top-notch colleges and universities across the country.

Mr. Mazzarella said he is passionate about what he does, and that he urges his students to be the same.

He also said he isn’t easy on his students; he requires strict discipline and that they be on time, know their lines and not miss any cues. He doesn’t expect every member of the arts program to be on stage, urging the students to look at the "staff" pages in old playbills to see all of the other jobs the theater has to offer. He also takes his students on theater trips to the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake and to shows by local repertory companies.

When a show at St. Paul’s is in production, rehearsals usually run from 5-9 p.m.; he invites students to help him build sets and make costumes on Saturdays.

Before heading off to rehearsal for the New York show, Mr. Mazzarella said he and his collaborators have high hopes for "O Night Divine." They think it could become a holiday tradition like "White Christmas," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" and the recently opened "Elf."

"O Night Divine" is at Theater at St. Peter’s from Dec. 9-12. Performances are at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Dec. 11 and 12. Tickets are available online at onightdivinemusical.com or by phone at (201) 360-0430.