Wednesday, 7 January 2015

the me nobody knows

I reckon that there are not very many books written by children that have spawned a full-blown award-winning musical - and one that has continued to be performed over the past forty five years...

What's more - the me nobody knows is an anthology of writing by young people hailing from what were once some of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York City, USA. The idea was hatched by a group of the City's school teachers in the 1960s who had been freely encouraging their students to write in the classroom. Their intention, as editor Stephen M. Joseph wrote in his introduction to the me nobody knows, "is to diminish the stigma of the word 'slum', by showing that these children of the ghetto, if given the chance and an open climate to write, have a tremendous amount to say and are anxious to speak". The student's work was collected by their teachers, and some were then selected to be reprinted in progressive journals about education - like Columbia University's What's Happening? magazine.

"The ghetto child is for us to listen" reads the blurb on the back cover

The next step was to turn even more people on to what was happening in the classrooms. It didn't take long. In 1969, Discus Books, published by Avon (a division of the Hearst Corporation) issued a paperback packed with short pieces by almost 200 primary and secondary school children - compiled by a New York school teacher, Stephen M. Joseph. For the cover, a colourful drawing of a girl and a skipping rope by Patricia Taylor, perfectly illustrating the kind of writing within - honest, direct, raw and emotional.

the me nobody knows arrived in January 1969. The book was such a runaway smash hit that it had to be reprinted twice by the end of the following month. One particular sale would have a significant impact on the life of the project. That was to Brooklyn-born playwright Herb Schapiro - who quickly recognised another kind of journey for those dreams and nightmares of the young writers...

TMNK - the logo

Schapiro was the driving force behind a theatrical musical version of The Me Nobody Knows (The first letters in small case in the title replaced by capitals). It opened in 1970, performed in New York, first Off, and later, on Broadway. With a cast of 12, including a very young Irene Cara (later to star in the 80s film Flashdance), and complete with brash rock-folk numbers arranged and conducted by Gary William Friedman. The awards swiftly followed. For one reviewer, "The stories have a validity, a feel of truth to them. They reminded me of those Studs Terkel documentary tape recordings of America, in their frighteningly pertinent inconsequentiality." 

A soundtrack of the original cast recording was issued on LP by Atlantic Records in 1970, and the show travelled throughout the US - and beyond...

the front page of the original flyer produced by the Shaw Theatre

In May 1973, The Shaw Theatre situated between Euston and St Pancras Stations in the London Borough of Camden presented the very first performances in the UK of the me nobody knows, dubbed 'the young musical'. It retained the American songs but transferred the action to the London landscape. 

The promotional flyer for the show explains that "it charts a typical day in the life of twelve young people, black and white, and their thoughts and reaction to school, love and sex, their home life, the generation gap, religion, the future - in fact the concerns of young people growing up in any large, overcrowded city."

The Times was not too impressed, in particular the reviewer singled out "the blatant imitations of the musical Hair", and that the show "falls between two extremes: part documentary and part showbiz". 

By the way -  the Seat Prices were 60p, £1.20 or £1.70. Students and young people could get in for 30p...

and hand-drawn directions to 'the young musical'
An edition of the me nobody knows was never published in the UK, and the musical dropped out of sight. However back in the States it's quite another story. To this day, some youth or school company is performing the musical version of those words written by children who are now the age that their grandparents were when they put pen to paper at schools in Harlem, or Bedford-Stuyvesant or Manhattan's Lower East Side. But ironically the ongoing adoration of the me nobody knows has no connection with the actual paperback book which slipped out of print for many years - a sad fate redressed only recently by a print-on-demand publishing house.

But the concept of the me nobody knows would also have a remarkable influence on another writer - this time however, he was working as a school teacher in London's Stepney Green. The year was 1971...

To be continued...

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