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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 08, 2003

Filled with hope Filled with hope (August 08, 2003)

Sarah Hope teaches kids the joys and challenges of musical theater

by Robyn Israel

S arah Hope has always felt strongly about movies such as "The Miracle Worker," "Stand and Deliver" and "Dangerous Minds."

"I always thought I wanted to be Michelle Pfeiffer," Hope said in a recent interview at Walter Hays School, where she runs Hope Musical Theatre, a summer camp and after-school program. "All those movies were about teachers who would go into schools and make a difference, change their students in a better way."

Hope's working to instill her passion for musical theater in the children who attend her programs. At her summer camp, Hope's kids learn how to put on an entire show in two weeks, with the final production performed in front of family and friends. This year, the campers are putting on a junior version of "Annie," a play that gives everyone the chance to perform on stage, Hope said. The next performance will be Aug. 15 at Walter Hays School.

"I think it's one of the best shows to do with kids -- there are so many different parts. The orphans all have lines."

During the camp's two-week session (there are three per summer), kids spend three hours each day learning about all facets of the production: learning lines and songs, making costumes, building and painting sets, making props, and arranging choreography.

"No one's sitting around," Hope said. "If they're not performing, they're painting or learning their lines. There's a lot to get done in two weeks.

"I'm hard on my kids; I'm constantly yelling at them, not in a mean way, but I want them to reach their potential."

To that end, Hope will let the kids, who range from first to fifth grade, adapt roles for themselves. For instance, Sophie Brown, who played Sandy (Annie's dog), in a recent performance wrote lines for the normally mute character. Last session, Hope cast Julian Hornik, an "amazingly talented" 7-year-old boy, in the title role and called the production "Andy."

"I like teaching kids that it doesn't have to be exactly the same," Hope said. "I like the idea of giving boys the confidence to take on a leading role."

There were seven boys (out of 17 kids) enrolled in this summer's first session -- an unusually high number, according to Hope.

"Usually it's one or two," she said. "It's exciting to me to get boys involved. There's always many more girls who audition for parts, so I like to encourage it."

When asked what sets her program apart from other local groups such as Palo Alto Children's Theatre and Peninsula Youth Theatre, Hope said she's been so busy creating her own school over the last three years, she has not researched in-depth what others have to offer.

"I know they're well thought-of," she said. "I try to keep my program small, so I can be hands-on with each child. And I try to encourage everyone to stand up on the stage and speak or sing by themselves. When you make programs larger, kids don't have that opportunity."

To see Hope in action is to behold a young, vibrant woman whose enthusiasm about musical theater is infectious. Her motto is to "Hope for the Stars," both a play on her name and her sincere wish for her young thespians.

"I love the idea of giving children music, song and hope," she said. "I want them to strive for the best, to never give up."

Born Sarah Hope Liebowitz (she later dropped her maiden name in favor of a more catchy stage name), Hope grew up in Castro Valley, where she realized, while in the third grade, that she wanted to run her own musical-theater school.

"I've always wanted that, since the third grade. I've always loved to perform and teach. As a young girl, I'd set the dolls up in little rows and tell them what their assignments were."

Hope studied at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. While living in New York, she did an internship at Inside Broadway, which involved teaching and directing in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. There she met many kids, who, despite living 45 minutes from Broadway, had never heard of the city's legendary theater district.

"Some places were scary, with gangs around. One of the kids was shot and killed and wasn't at school the next day," Hope recalled. "But it wasn't until I worked for Inside Broadway that I was really challenged."

Three years ago, Hope moved back to the Bay Area, where she acted in the long-running "Beach Blanket Babylon," a zany musical spoof of pop culture. Accompanied by her brother, Matthew, a pianist and opera singer, Hope also staged a cabaret show at the now-defunct Piaf's in San Francisco. Eager to pursue her childhood dream of running a musical-theater program, she approached Walter Hays Principal Carol Paraino, who eagerly supported the idea.

Now in its third year, the summer camp has staged "The Wizard of Oz" and "Peter Pan." Caitlin Brown, one of Hope's former students, is assisting her this summer as a counselor.

"She's really nice. She makes sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing," said Brown, who will enter seventh grade at Castilleja School this year. "We did a lot of stuff like projecting, articulating, making sure everyone can hear you."

Hope gets additional help from her mother, Terry Liebowitz, and her aunt, Sylvi Way, a Palo Alto resident. Both assist her with make-up and costume changes at the final performance on the last day of camp.

During the academic year, Hope also runs after-school programs at Walter Hays, Addison and Ohlone, where kids prepare two shows per year, typically revues that incorporate songs from classic musicals.

Newly married this summer, Hope would love to resume performing, and is seeking a local venue where she can stage a new cabaret show.

Her journey has so far taken her from one coast to another, but kids, regardless of where they live, seem to show the same interest and joy in musical theater.

"The families are wealthier (here), but kids are kids. Their freshness and excitement to learn is the same. Their passion for theater and their love of the arts doesn't change. It doesn't matter where you are. I would like everyone to experience that."

What: "Annie," presented by Hope Musical Theatre

Where: Walter Hays School (MP room), 1525 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto

When: Friday, Aug. 15 at 3 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call (650) 568-3332 or visit


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