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Herb Schapiro, 85; playwright behind ‘The Me Nobody Knows’

NEW YORK — Herb Schapiro, a writer and teacher whose idea to create a stage play from the collected essays of urban children resulted in a hit musical, “The Me Nobody Knows,” died Oct. 17 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 85.

His son, Mark, said the cause was complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Called “a dark and lovely rock-folk musical” by Times critic Clive Barnes when it opened off Broadway in May 1970, “The Me Nobody Knows” tells the stories, largely in their own words, of a dozen children, mostly black or Puerto Rican, and what it was like for them to grow up poor in New York.

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Mr. Schapiro called it a “ghetto ‘Under Milk Wood,’ ’’ referring to a Dylan Thomas drama. In December of that year, the show moved to Broadway, where it ran for nearly a year.

The show was inspired by an anthology of writing by New York City schoolchildren edited by Stephen M. Joseph, a teacher. Mr. Schapiro read the book, “The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices from the Ghetto,” and envisioned it as theater.

At the time, as a playwright, he had had a couple of plays produced, including “Kill the One-Eyed Man,” an adaptation of a Gogol short story, and he was teaching in New Jersey.

Some 200 separate writings from the book, by about 100 children, were winnowed down to 12 characters and not quite two hours of stage time.

“The problem was to impose some form, to be true to the book yet create something, something with substance, validity, orderly development,” Mr. Schapiro said in an interview after the show opened.

“The Me Nobody Knows” won an off-Broadway Obie award, and although its Broadway incarnation was nominated for five Tonys, including best musical, Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” swept the musical awards that year.

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“The Me Nobody Knows” ran for nearly 400 performances on Broadway and was produced in theaters across the United States and in other countries. In 1980, it was made into a television special that appeared on Showtime.

Herbert Elliott Schapiro was born in Brooklyn. He studied literature at New York University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees and completing the course work for a doctorate, although he never wrote a dissertation. During the Korean War he served in the Army and was assigned to a base in Puerto Rico, where he taught English to recruits.

Mr. Schapiro’s theater projects were often motivated by social causes. His plays included “The Love Song of Saul Alinsky,” about the radical Chicago-based community organizer.

Two decades after “The Me Nobody Knows,” he collaborated on “Bring in the Morning,” a musical in the same mold, based on writing by older teenagers — students, hospital patients, addicts in rehab, and unwed mothers. It ran off Broadway in 1994.

Mr. Schapiro was married and divorced three times. In addition to his son, he leaves his partner of eight years, Gail Richardson; two daughters, Judith Nevard and Elizabeth Marsh; and four grandchildren.

“We were very, very lucky,” Mr. Schapiro recalled during the off-Broadway run of “The Me Nobody Knows.” He said that another show was scheduled to open the same night but was postponed. As a result, he said, “we got the first-string critics down at the Orpheum.”

One was Barnes.

“I loved it,” he wrote.