Coffee mug in hand, with a quick check of his watch, Mark Steighner headed to the podium for one last time Saturday night.
The last show of “Into the Woods” began promptly at 7 p.m., and the evening ended three hours later after a long list of thank-yous and a musical sendoff.
“This is the last high school musical I’m doing. Which is an interesting thing to think about,” Steighner told the full house audience after the final act. “This is the time of year when I say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing next year.’ It kind of feels weird not to do that.”
Staging Stephen Sondheim’s musical was the last side of a tremendous triangle of productions Steighner guided in 2014. In September and October, he was busy with Mozart’s Requiem, the first large-scale collaboration by Voci Community Choir and Gorge Sinfonietta, the rehearsals overlapping with last summer’s “Urinetown: The Musical,” at CAST. (See “Notes on Steighner” sidebar.)
A 1999 Panorama profile on Steighner referred to the HRVHS choir trip to the United Kingdom, the first of at least eight such tours to the UK and Ireland, taken in odd-numbered years. The 1999 trip included a performance in Westminster Abbey. (Steighner plans to lead a Canada trip for 2015.) Steighner said then, “What’s satisfying is that you’ve prepared someone to go on well. When they talk to you after they’ve gone to college, they’ve said, ‘You opened the door for me.’ It’s like standing upstage, holding the curtain up for someone else. I see that’s my job to hold the curtain for them.”
It’s pure analogy for Steighner, as the realities of staging big shows at Bowe did away with the actual curtain some years ago, but Steighner stood in front of the stage Saturday, holding the curtain for dozens of people: performers, tech crew, orchestra, and parents who helped with costumes, makeup, and everything else that goes into mounting a production.
“And we thank you,” he told the full house audience. “We rely on you, and your support of our sponsoring businesses, who we depend on to put on these productions, as we get no funding from the school to put these shows on.”
Steighner’s next HRVHS performance will be the Advent Concert on Dec. 5 at Riverside Community Church, an annual tradition for his choir groups, and he is planning a CAST musical next summer.
“I’m still doing musicals in the community,” said Steighner, who also is director of both Voci community choir, which he founded, and Gorge Sinfonietta.
“I’ve done 37 years of musicals here, and it’s been an incredible pleasure and a lot of work, but really, really rewarding,” Steighner said.
On Saturday, following the long list of acknowledgements, Steighner turned to the cast and said, “You guys are the latest incarnation of it, so on behalf of all of the thousands of students who have been in musicals, about 500 performances, thank you very much.”
“Now, actors: for the audience. And I’m done,” Steighner said as the cast applauded.
Senior musicians then sang Steighner’s “Singing for the Rest of Our Lives,” a fitting tribute for its message of doing what you love, and persevering to excellence despite obstacles and fears, which was a basic Steighner tenet throughout his career.
“We know change can be good, even though it may be scary when we first embark … we’ll be singing for the rest of our lives,” was one of the lines Steighner wrote and the students sang back to him.
Hannah Simons told Steighner, “The musicals you’ve directed are truly amazing and special and I think one of the best things all of us have done is to swallow our fears and walk into the audition room and be part of this, and as seniors in our last show, we want to thank you, so as you’ve always taught us, when emotions are too great, you sing, so we’d love to sing for you.”
Tears, and a few forgotten lines, added to the emotion and humor of the moment.
Delaney Barbour remembered her first audition with Steighner this way: “I was a freshman and so nervous, shaking, it was a huge room and you were this imposing man standing there,” she said. “It was horrible but then I realized how cool it was you gave us this opportunity, and you have pushed me harder than anyone at this high school. And it has taught me the value of hard work, and that even though it may be really tough sometimes, you can push through. It’s been amazing. Thank you for giving me so much, so much.”
Caitlyn Fick said she has been involved in Steighner music and school and community productions since the third grade and that year’s “Seussical.”
“That was the spark of this amazing journey and I joined so many music groups since I started high school and I’m really thankful for all you taught us about music and what it can give the world,” she said.
Stage manager Emmalyse Brownlee choked back tears as she told Steighner, “Because you have given me all these opportunities I have met all these people, and I am so grateful for everything you do for me and everyone in this program. I want to thank you for these last four years.”
“Thank you for being a teacher, a mentor and a friend,” Noah Tauscher told Steighner.
“Congratulations on your final show at Hood River Valley High School. That’s a pretty big deal. Thank you for making all the music groups at the caliber they are,” Tauscher said. “It’s funny for me to think about, If you can do all this stuff, direct all these musicals and manage all these bands and choirs, and write all these musicals, if you can do that in your free time as a full time teacher, what you’re going to be able to do in your free time after you leave this school, well, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Sounds like a lot of pressure, Noah,” Steighner deadpanned.
Notes on Steighner
Resume (in brief)
He’s held every imaginable musical leadership in Hood River in the past 34 years, with Chamber Singers, Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, and the rock band Spectrum since starting with the schools in 1980.
He’s also directed church and middle school choirs, and written music for a number or productions including his trio of musicals.
Quoteable — “I want every person to become open to their own possibility,” Steighner said in a 2010 interview with the Hood River News. “Most people don’t realize how much they can do. It is even scary sometimes to see just how much you as an individual are capable of.”
(The caption for the lead photo has been corrected. The photo caption contained errors when published on Nov. 26.)