As Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” Judy Garland sings of a place far away, where trouble melts like lemon drops and dreams come true.
Her message of hope has resonated in the countless lives of many for years, and its reminder that better days are ahead especially rings true today as the world continues to battle the novel coronavirus pandemic.
So when High Point Regional High School’s spring musical, “The Wizard of Oz,” was postponed as a result of COVID-19, Dorothy herself — played by senior Caroline Reese — came up with a way to bring a little bit of hope back into the lives of her fellow castmates.
Reese had reached out to her fellow cast members just days after school had shut down and asked them to record themselves singing their respective vocal parts in the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She later compiled the video, and on April 3, the musical’s planned opening night, she posted it to social media.
“It was something nice to do for the schools and the directors as a gift from the cast,” Reese said via a video conference on Zoom with the New Jersey Herald. “Everyone just kept sending me more and more videos, I actually cried putting it together.”
But as the roughly 2 ½ minute video, called “Our Gift is Our Song,” was viewed by friends, family and musical director, Theresa Riccardi, it also captured the attention of Broadway’s Tony Award-winning actress/singer Laura Benanti on Twitter.
Benanti not only liked the video, but she wrote to Reese to let her know the video has been selected to be part of Sunshine Songs Concert, airing on Saturday at 6 p.m. on Benanti’s YouTube page. On March 13, Benanti created #SunshineSongs, which invited students from across the country to share videos of the performances they were not able to give in school due to the ongoing pandemic.
Since that tweet, Benanti has appeared in various media outlets, including “Good Morning America,” where the Kinnelon-raised star said her mom, a voice teacher, was her inspiration for the concert.
“I was thinking about how important my high school musical was to me,” she said. “These shows bring entire towns together in celebration of their talented young people, and I wanted to provide a platform for them to be seen and celebrated!”
Benanti initially received 20 submissions when she put out a tweet on March 13, but has since received well over 6,000, according to multiple media reports. She has chosen only about 40 that will be part of the concert Saturday, which will include a live performance by Benanti herself.
The stage and screen star has also partnered with various organizations, like K4Connect and Seniorly, to distribute the videos to senior living communities as well as patients at children’s hospitals.
“This song means so much to us, the words are so important right now, and now that a song that means so much to us means so much to other people,” Reese said, “that’s the most beautiful thing about it.”
Riccardi, who has been the choral and theater director at High Point for 21 years, said she is “so happy” for the cast, stating that she was not surprised that the cast “would come up with something so special.”
“To be able to take something they loved about the show and make that relevant to what we’re all dealing with right now is important and so beautiful,” Riccardi added.
Reese said when she would perform the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during rehearsals, it had a “certain meaning” for her, but she saw the song through the eyes of her fellow cast mates when they submitted their videos.
“Every time another video got sent in, I don’t know what their perspectives were, but it was different than the rehearsal process,” she said. “I was just speechless hearing everyone sing their hearts out, knowing they are all coming from different places.”
While Reese is disappointed, she may not take the stage for her final show as a high school student, she instead turned it into a positive, saying that she had the honor of portraying Anne Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the fall play at High Point.
“That show was so special, and I am very lucky and grateful I had that experience, so I am OK with (Anne Frank) being my last show,” Reese, who has plans to attend Emerson College in the fall, said.
Benanti was nominated for five Tony Awards and won one, for 2008’s “Gypsy.” She also performed as Baroness Elsa Schräder in NBC’s 2013 “The Sound of Music Live!” and has portrayed First Lady Melania Trump in recurring appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Among the celebrities who have vowed to watch Saturday’s concert is “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The free concert event will have a live viewing party on the website www.SunshineSongs.com and on Benanti’s YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sP-ayXiD3KU&feature=youtu.be.
To view the video “Our Gift Is Our Song,” visit: https://youtu.be/z77gyQ5adNk.
Lori Comstock can also be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.