The title song to the musical Cabaret was most famously performed by Liza Minnelli — but it took on new layers of meaning when sung by Susan Hinrichs.
Hinrichs is an 89-year-old resident of Juniper Communities’ senior living campus in State College, Pennsylvania. She found herself performing Cabaret because Juniper is piloting an ambitious new initiative called Broadway Senior, which has drawn the attention and involvement of some musical theater legends. It is being spearheaded by Freddie Gershon, co-chairman of Music Theatre International (MTI), which holds the licensing rights to hundreds of renowned shows. Gershon, who is himself 80 years old, won a 2012 Tony Award honor for a similar initiative for young performers, called Broadway Junior.
Hinrich’s performance of Cabaret demonstrates the power and potential of Broadway Senior, Gershon told Senior Housing News, noting how meaningful the opening lyrics are when sung in an assisted living community, by a resident.
“She says, ‘What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, so come to the cabaret,’” said Gershon. “That was their lives … that became the showstopper.”
The growing success of Broadway Senior is due to close collaboration between Juniper and other companies and institutions, and is part of a concerted effort by the Bloomfield, New Jersey-based provider to take a new, “integrated” approach to resident activities and programs.
“Broadway Senior has proven itself to be a first great example of this integrated model of programming,” Juniper President and CEO Lynne Katzmann told Senior Housing News.
Winning resident support
Gershon is a colorful and accomplished figure in the entertainment industry. His clout and connections — as well as his ability to win over a tough crowd — have helped Broadway Senior get off the ground.
His love of theater started as a child — he can remember seeing South Pacific on Broadway in 1949 — and he studied classical piano at Juilliard. He went on to law school and ultimately became counsel for The Robert Stigwood Group, which was behind the blockbuster motion picture soundtracks for Grease and Saturday Night Fever. He helped finance the 1984 hit Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles, and then acquired and became CEO of MTI.
MTI company licenses the rights to hundreds of musicals — including Annie, The Music Man, and West Side Story —to schools, community theaters and a variety of other organizations around the globe. Gershon brought on legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh — whose hits include Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables — as a partner for MTI, and Mackintosh ultimately became majority shareholder.
In 1994, Gershon conceived of Broadway Junior as a way to instill a love of theater in children at young ages, by enabling them to perform in specially adapted versions of shows from the MTI catalogue. Broadway Junior shows are condensed to 30 minutes for elementary schools or 60 minutes for middle schools, and come with guides and resources to help facilitate rehearsals and stagings.
Gershon traces the genesis of Broadway Senior back about seven years, when he received a call from the director of a community theater in Lincoln, Nebraska. The theater had just done the Broadway Junior version of Guys and Dolls, and the director wanted to use those materials to do a version with seniors.
“As I hung up the phone, I knew that this was something far greater than community theater,” Gershon said. “This was a whole world that has been ignored.”
The early experiments in Nebraska went well, and when Gershon stepped down as MTI’s CEO in 2017, he turned his attention more fully to Broadway Senior. He became interested in how these shows might be done in senior living communities, with performers who have physical limitations or memory-related diseases.
That’s when he called Katzmann. The two had served together on the board of Arts Connection, which supports fine arts programs in New York City schools. Katzmann was excited by Gershon’s idea and invited him to visit a Juniper community in New Jersey to get a sense of contemporary senior living and discuss the Broadway Senior concept with residents.
While Gershon was impressed with the look and feel of the Juniper building, the presentation to residents did not go well at first. The group seemed disappointed in the subject of his talk, he said, and skeptical of his ideas. Finally, one resident asked a pointed question: “What’s this going to cost us?”
Gershon explained that there would be no cost — MTI would waive its licensing fees for the pilot — and he countered with a question of his own. He asked the gentleman to repeat his question, in exactly the same tone of voice as before. The resident did so.
“I stroked my chin and said, ‘If we do Annie, would you consider being Daddy Warbucks?’” Gershon said. “After three beats I get nervous, and on the fourth, he said, ‘You really think so?’ That’s when they melted.”
The meeting ended with the residents breaking into an impromptu sing-a-long of God Bless America.
With Gershon and Katzmann now confident now that residents were on board, serious planning began.
The team at Juniper decided to start the Broadway Senior pilot at their Brookline community in State College. That’s because Gershon emphasized how crucial partnerships would be. Ideally, a regional theater or a school with a robust theater department would be game to provide needed support in terms of equipment and theatrical know-how. Penn State University appeared a promising collaborator.
Also, Brookline’s senior director of community relations, Katie Kensinger, has a background in dance and theater. She helped bring on board local groups such as FUSE Productions, a theater company led by Rich Biever.
“I said, Guys and Dolls should the first show, because it’s indestructible, it’s a fable, there’s a movie that you can show over and over, and there’s no special effects of any kind,” Gershon said.
Juniper began building excitement for Guys and Dolls by holding a casino-themed party. Then, for the first two weeks, any interested residents could come to rehearsals and take turns reading from the script and singing. Through that process, the residents got a sense of who was well-suited for each role and casting occurred naturally, Kensinger said.
The rehearsal period lasted about eight weeks, with two rehearsals per week. Most of the participants were assisted living or memory care residents. Those in memory care often still remember the classic songs from a show like Guys and Dolls, and they also may have fewer inhibitions than other people, making them engaging performers, Kensinger said.
Throughout the process, the residents provided ongoing feedback to help shape the Broadway Senior model. For instance, they did not want to sing with a pre-recorded instrumental track, preferring a live accompanist on piano who could prompt them with lyrics or adjust if they missed an entrance.
The final production was done as readers’ theater, with scripts in hand. The community’s dining room was transformed into a performance space through the use of rented drapes, professional theatrical lighting, and a sound system. The audience sat on risers while the performers were on the floor.
Guys and Dolls was a hit at Juniper, and the community has since mounted two other productions: Singin’ in the Rain and And the World Goes ‘Round, a revue of songs by the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the duo behind Cabaret, Chicago and other hits.
The impact of the musicals exceeded Kensinger’s expectations.
“This program impacted people in a way that nothing else did — and we have been known for the quality and diversity of our activities — but this was different,” she said. “It was asking people to commit to something where other people were expecting them to be there, and it gave them a sense of purpose.”
Some residents reported that rehearsing and performing helped them forget their pain, and some said that simply having something to talk about at the dinner table — other than their latest doctor appointment — greatly improved their quality of life.
Juniper is now planning to expand the pilot to other communities in its portfolio of 21 properties. MTI is using the Juniper template to create a library of Broadway Senior shows that will ultimately be part of its product catalogue, but Gershon stresses that affordability and flexibility will remain a guiding principle.
“This is bespoke theater,” he said. “Every one of these shows will look different, [because] the limitations of the seniors are different.”
A new partnership model
The success and impact of Broadway Senior is due in large part to how it integrated Juniper with a variety of other organizations, facilitating a meaningful and intergenerational experience for residents, according to both Kensinger and Katzmann.
“We want to truly be a part of the communities where we’re located. Broadway Senior is a springboard for that to happen,” Kensinger said. “From the theater community, I’m getting feedback like, we didn’t know you were here and had so much to offer. It opened my eyes that people outside senior living are willing to be involved and want that.”
Thanks to the Broadway Senior partnership, FUSE Productions is now more thoroughly integrated into the Brookline community, with the theater bringing performances on site and residents going to see its shows.
Indeed, even some of the leading lights of Broadway are getting involved. Gershon called John Kander himself to ask if And the World Goes ‘Round could be adapted for the Juniper pilot.
Not only was Kander enthusiastic, he is now working with his other collaborators on that revue — including five-time Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman — to do an official 60-minute Broadway Senior adaptation.
Even legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is on board, throwing his support behind a Broadway Senior version of Into the Woods that was done at human services center Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in New York City earlier this year.
For Juniper, the Broadway Senior initiative is helping to drive a larger evolution.
The company is known for its Connect4Life model of integrated health services, which leverages partnerships as well as in-house capabilities to provide wraparound resident care. A similar approach can and should be taken to resident programming, Katzmann believes.
Doing so demands not only more robust relationships with partner organizations but a change in mindset, she said: Activities should not be provided “for” someone in senior living, but should be generated by their interests and curated to engage them.
“What it means practically is that rather than just finding out about someone’s background, we talk with them and their families about organizations that they had a meaningful participation or role in, and we go out to these organizations and reestablish those connections in relation to programming,” she said. “We start bringing people together.”
Already, Juniper has elicited interest from a variety of interested partners in arts programming as well as in health and wellness offerings. Groups that offer fitness classes and similar services to the community at large are willing to come on-site to Juniper — not just with tailored offerings for seniors, but also bringing their existing participants of all ages with them.
The result is an intergenerational environment, which is increasingly sought by prospective residents.
As it did with Connect4Life on the care side, Katzmann anticipates that Juniper will come up with a brand identity for its new programming approach. For the moment, she is thinking of it as the “perennial experience,” although no official branding has been determined.
“This program helped us to change how we think about what we do in senior living and the opportunities that we give our residents,” Kensinger said of Broadway Senior. “One of the [resident] quotes that stuck with me was, ‘I want people to know that we’re still here, and we still want to do things, and we still can do things.’”
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