Leave it to a group of retirees affiliated with Harvard University to contemplate the afterlife and break into a chorus of “Ain’t We Got Fun.” Or debate whether to read Balzac or watch the Red Sox in the sweet, or maybe not-so-sweet, hereafter.
Leave it, in other words, to the cast of “Just for the H . . . of It,” an original piece of musical theater being performed this week by members of Harvard’s Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR), whose 550 members range in age from a youthful 60 to a spry old 95.
The two performances, on April 23 and 24 at Longfellow Hall in Cambridge, may not inspire comparisons, flattering or otherwise, to current box office hit “The Book of Mormon.” The costumes and sets are low-to-no-budget, the dancing and singing well below Broadway standards, the script filled with in-jokes about the institute itself.
Hell is renamed The Other H Place Institute for Loafing in Retirement. Down there, inhabitants drink expensive Scotch and make fun of study groups, which are wildly popular, naturally, at the other H Place, the Heavenly Institute for Learning in Retirement.
Divided between the Saved and the Damned, characters warble and wing their way through what one aptly calls a “footnoted, annotated, explicated, and bifurcated plot.” There are Whitey Bulger and Rush Limbaugh jokes (guess which direction those two are likely to be headed?) plus a medley of 1950s pop songs that include “That’ll Be the Day (When I Die).”
Sounds like Harvard, right?
Still, it’s hard to imagine any local theater troupe, no matter their age or level of professionalism, having more fun than this plucky crew of retired lawyers, teachers, doctors, musicians, and business executives.
If nothing else, they’re out to prove (a) there’s no business like show business to keep aging minds and bodies in shape, and (b) you can’t spell “ham” without an H.
“I do like the age aspect,” says the play’s author, Robert Kinerk, 73, a Cambridge resident and writer of books and plays for children. “It’s like we’re making a Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland] reference. ‘Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!’ ”
Kinerk’s wife, Anne Warner, serves as the play’s music director and pianist.
Mickey Zemon, a retired Emerson College librarian, has the female lead in the one-hour production. Calling it one of the best experiences she’s had in seven years at HILR, Zemon is embarking on her maiden theatrical voyage this week. She decided to do so after co-teaching a course with Marjorie North, the institute’s indefatigably persuasive director of musicals.
“I would not have auditioned for this play, because I don’t sing,” Zemon explained during a group interview with several cast members. “But Marjorie said, ‘It’s OK. We’ll find a minor role for you.’ Then she sent me this e-mail saying, ‘I’m pleased to offer you the lead.’ ”
Zemon laughed. “I thought, well, if not now, when? I couldn’t say no to Marjorie.”
This will be North’s fourth musical production at HILR. Created in 1977 as an offshoot of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, the institute admits only a handful of new applicants each year. Around 30 percent of its members hold a Harvard or Radcliffe degree, which is not a requirement for admission. Paying $800 annually, all partake of a rich menu of peer-taught courses offered in a wide variety of subjects.
HILR has long fielded a troupe of Shakespearean players who perform works by the Bard. North was conducting a class on George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers when she got the notion of expanding into “Oklahoma!” territory. The idea took hold, and quickly so.
Each year since, her musicals have grown more ambitious, North notes, as more and more HILRers have caught the acting (and singing) bug, discovering how much they enjoy the shared experience of channeling their inner Hugh Jackmans and Audra McDonalds.
“To me, the process is as important as the product,” says North, who teaches public speaking and has a background in theater education and community theater.
“We want it to be the best show possible, of course,” she adds. “But it’s the communal process, the rehearsing and learning lines together, that’s equally important.”
Recent studies have, in fact, shown a link between the creative arts and healthy aging. A 2006 study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and National Center for Creative Aging found what it called “strikingly positive differences” in a group of seniors (65 and older) involved in participatory arts programs such as theater. Among the benefits: fewer doctor visits, less medication usage, and improved mental-health measurements.
Other studies specifically focused on seniors and theater — by definition, a multisensory and collaborative form of the arts — bolster these findings. A 1999 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology followed a control group of seniors (ages 62 to 85) who took professional acting classes, then rehearsed and performed what they had studied. Compared with others their age, the study found, these seniors were better off mentally and emotionally than those who hadn’t had the same experience, even achieving higher scores on recall and recognition tests.
When seniors become involved in artistic pursuits like theater, “it creates not only individual enhancement — stronger brains, even — but social capacity for the whole community,” says Gay Hanna, executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging in Washington.
HILRers don’t need an academic study to tell them that acting and singing can put a glossier shine on one’s golden years.
Being part of a production like this, notes cast member Fred Wanger, 68, a pianist and retired music teacher, requires memorizing lots of lines and lyrics — which gets harder each year, he admits. “But I’ve always had this acting bug, so this has been a lot of fun, too,” Wanger said. “We’re all Type A people here and want to do a good job, though, not just have fun.”
Martin Aronson, 79, a retired trial lawyer, landed the role of Council President of the Damned. Long a theater buff, he says the only dramatic work he ever did before coming to HILR was in a courtroom, not a theater. This year’s musical will be his fourth, he said, notwithstanding his admitted lack of theatrical gifts.
“Not only can I not carry a tune, I can’t lip-synch to one, either,” Aronson joked. “But I can carry a pitchfork.”
Joining Aronson, Zemon, and Wanger to talk about the production were cast members David Rich, 79, a retired corporate lawyer, and Richard Berger, 71, who spent 33 years as a high-school Spanish teacher. All maintained with straight faces that they had not given so much as a passing thought to the play’s obvious mortality theme — and how it might apply to present company.
That’s getting way too philosophical, they protested.
Too deep for us, all agreed.
Then, right on cue and to much heartfelt laughter, one added, “Maybe we’re just in denial.”
“Just for the H . . . of It” will be staged at 3:30 p.m. on April 23- 24 at Longfellow Hall, 13 Appian Way, Cambridge. Admission is free and open to the public.