Gotta Sing! | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Gotta Sing! 

High school stage standout Anthony Fett is ready to take his show on the road.

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As his parents tell the story, Anthony Fett was one of those lucky people who know what they want to do with their lives almost from the day they're born. Jerry Fett, Anthony's father, says, "From the time he could talk he was ready to sing a show tune."

Anthony, now 18, will graduate from Whitney Young in June, then head east for college. If the papers followed high school arts the way they do high school basketball, he might be a household name. "Anthony Fett--remember that name," says David Canepa, the English teacher who runs Young's theater program. "I've been doing shows for 20 years now, and Anthony's one of the best I've ever seen."

Fett's parents aren't sure where their son got his urge to perform. Jerry played trumpet in a high school rock group, and Teresa sang in her high school choir. "But neither of us has a great desire to get onstage," says Jerry. He says his son was singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" before he was walking. "Anthony saw a tape of The Wizard of Oz years ago, and he wanted to watch that tape every day. He was a Judy Garland fan at the age of three."

By the time Anthony was five he was staging family productions of shows such as The Little Mermaid with his younger sister, Melissa, and later with his younger brother, Tim. By age six he was singing in the church choir and performing with the Chicago Children's Choir.

Every gathering was an audience, every new home a stage. He sang for family and friends at weddings and birthday parties. "My grandfather on my mother's side, Thomas Vitale, was a music teacher in the public schools," says Fett. "He took me to operas. He'd get the senior citizen discount and take me to matinees. When I was six I actually got to be an extra at the Lyric. Somehow I got the job--I really don't remember how. What I do remember is walking on that stage and being swallowed up by the enormity of it all. It was just this big stage with all these big people and their big voices and the orchestra and the lights. It was huge, it was profound--and I wanted it."

At the age of eight, Fett says, he made two life-changing discoveries: "I found an old tape of Jesus Christ Superstar and I just went for it. I wanted to play Jesus. And I discovered Barbra Streisand. I love Barbra Streisand--she's my absolute favorite. I've read her biography--I bought it when I was 12. I have all of her records. I've seen her movies. I still remember when I first heard her sing. My dad had a tape of The Broadway Album, and he played Barbra singing 'Somewhere.' I remember I was sitting in my dad's car hearing it really loud, blasting loud. I can't even explain to you what it was that I loved--it was just the power of her voice. It is--oh, my goodness--it is awe inspiring. I just played it over and over. I never returned that tape to my father's collection. I still listen to it. That tape exposed me to great Broadway composers--Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin. Once I heard it I couldn't get enough."

In 1990 his parents enrolled him in a local Catholic grammar school. "But it really wasn't the right fit," says Fett. "In the first grade some of the other kids called me 'opera boy.' They teased me because I could sing. I told my dad, and he was great about it. He said, 'Just understand that you're doing something that will take you somewhere. So don't worry about what they think.' That's what I did--I took my own path."

Fett says his biggest cheerleaders were his parents: "I used to do the talent shows at the Kenosha County Fair up in Wisconsin. When I was nine I sang Sondheim's 'Being Alive.' When I was preparing for that contest my father took me into the basement and made me sing it until it was up to his standards. I finished singing, and he said, 'OK, let's work on it.' Then he made me sing it again. When we were done he told me, 'No matter what happens, you're not going to lose. Even if they give the prize to someone else. The fact is that you put all this energy into this, and you made it better--so you won.' That's a great attitude to have, and it's stuck with me."

In 1996 Fett was accepted at the Franklin Fine Arts Center, a public school specializing in the arts. "It's a magnet school--you get in by lottery," he says. "I'd been trying to get in since about first grade. I finally got in when I was in the sixth grade. What a break. It was an art school, so of course it was OK to want to sing."

"I remember he walked into the office and burst into a Barbra Streisand song," says Victoria Bates, Franklin's assistant principal. "I think it was 'Don't Rain on My Parade' or maybe it was 'Funny Girl'--eventually I know he sang both. We were amazed. 'Who's this kid singing Streisand?'"

Franklin's dance teacher, Byron Price, taught him ballet and tap and hip-hop, and the drama teacher, Mary Bonnett, refined his acting skills. "He was quite vivacious--quite the leader, quite the organizer," says Bonnett. "His personality was number one. He just lived to perform--there's no other way to put it."

Almost everything Fett did at Franklin demonstrated his love for showbiz. The school's counselor, Marilyn Clark, used to call him down to the office to sing show tunes for visitors. To help publicize a PTA bowl-for-books fund-raiser, he dressed in a bowling shirt and made a pitch at an assembly. When one mom chided him for smacking his gum while talking, he patiently explained that it was part of "being in character." His eighth-grade history-fair project, which he did with his best friend, Samantha Taylor, was devoted to Marilyn Monroe and other screen stars. That year he got the lead role in the all-school production of Aladdin.

"Aladdin was great--I'd never had the lead in a big musical before," he says. "There I was onstage in front of all my friends and their parents and the teachers, and it didn't matter that it was the grammar school show or whatever. I just felt the energy on that stage, and I wanted to do it again."

He went on to Young, where as a freshman he won the lead in the all-school production of Tommy. "That was a big deal, winning that role," says Canepa. "Freshmen didn't just walk in and get leads. But Anthony was special."

Throughout high school his schedule was filled with rehearsals and performances. The children's choir took him on tours around the country and the world, performing gospel, opera, classical, and pop standards. When the group performed at Carnegie Hall, Fett and his brother Tim were soloists. "That was my proudest moment as a papa--watching Anthony and Tim up there onstage at Carnegie Hall," says Jerry. "I couldn't get over that. I thought, 'What the hell did I do to deserve this? My God, those are my boys up there.'"

In December 2000, during his sophomore year, Fett performed at the Kennedy Center. "I sang with the children's choir in front of President Clinton," he says. "That was the night I met Barbra Streisand. She was being honored that night, and after the ceremony was over and they were ushering us out of the door I bumped into Donna Karan. I recognized her right away. I was like, 'You're Donna Karan.' I had my autograph book with me, and she said, 'Yeah, I'll sign your book.' Well, I knew she was friends with Barbra Streisand, 'cause I know everything about Barbra Streisand. I knew she designed Barbra's wedding dress. So I asked her if she knew where Barbra was. And she said, 'Look, Barbra's coming down the stairs. She'll talk to you 'cause you're a performer, but you'll have to keep it low-key.' And just as she said that, there was Barbra Streisand in her little mink muff and James Brolin at her side. I don't know how I mustered the courage, but I went up to her and I said, 'Ms. Streisand, you're my biggest influence, and I would never forgive myself if I didn't ask for your autograph.' She signed it. And I have it--I'll always have it. She wrote, 'Dear Anthony, best of luck. Barbra Streisand.'"

By the time he was a senior Fett had achieved all of his short-term goals except one. "I still hadn't done Jesus Christ Superstar," he says. "So I pushed Mr. Canepa to listen to the music, and he loved it."

In January they started rehearsals. Fett, who played Jesus, says it was a blast. All of his oldest high school friends were in the production--Elena Rubin played Judas, Kim Fukawa played Mary Magdalene, Nick Aszling played Caiaphas, and Hannah Hodak, who'd gone to Catholic school with Fett, built the set. "It was very emotional," says Fett. "We all knew this was our final show together, and we'd all grown so close."

The show, which opened on March 21 and ran for three weekends, was a quintessential great high school production, the youthful energy of its performers overcoming the poor acoustics, overacting, and slightly out-of-tune musicians. Fett clearly reveled in Andrew Lloyd Webber's bombastic score and Tim Rice's over-the-top lyrics. The auditorium was filled with parents, teachers, friends, and siblings, who greeted each curtain with a rousing ovation. "The last Saturday show on April 5 was unbelievable," says Canepa. "The energy in this place was sensational. I can't describe it."

The final performance, the following Monday, was a bit anticlimactic for the actors and crew. The audience was sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who'd been bused in from nearby grammar schools. It had snowed the night before, so traffic was slow and the buses were late. The show, scheduled to start at 10 AM, didn't get going until close to 11.

But once it began, the kids ate it up. They sighed when Fukawa sang "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and laughed when Nora Taylor soft-shoed through "King Herod's Song (Try It and See)." They cringed as Fett writhed in pain under the lashes of a Roman soldier's whip. And their mouths hung open when he was hoisted onto the cross.

As the lights went up and the actors took their bows, the grade-schoolers cheered enthusiastically. Then their teachers hustled them outside to the waiting buses.

The cast and crew--at least 100 students--sprawled across the stage. "I have to tell you something," Canepa said to them. "A lot of people have come through this school. They've gone on to great careers. But this is special--this is something, you have to understand. I've done more than 50 shows, and I've had thousands of people pass through my life here. But what you have here is very special, and I hope you can appreciate that."

He asked the graduating seniors to say a few words. Some spoke easily, others struggled through tears.

"This is where I found my voice," said one boy. "I'd rather be here than anywhere else."

"Everyone leaving makes me really sad," said another, "but it makes me feel blessed."

"For everyone who says we're just a cult--go to hell!" exclaimed a third. "We rock!"

And so it went for almost 30 minutes, all of the kids raising their hands. They spoke of their love for one another, vowed always to remember the good times they'd had together, insisted no future friendships could ever be as deep or true. They reminisced about obstacles overcome, laughs exchanged, lines muffed, ovations won. "Nothing anywhere will ever be the same as this," said one boy. "I'm worried that nothing will ever be as good."

Then one kid called out that it was time for lunch, and everyone scrambled backstage to change out of their costumes.

Fett joined a bunch of friends at a Thai restaurant, then went home. Two days later he was on a plane to Germany for a concert with the children's choir. "That will be my last concert with the choir," he said. "I can't believe it's over."

In the fall he begins classes at the Hartt School, a music and theater program affiliated with the University of Hartford in Connecticut. "When I was sitting on that stage listening to my friends talk about the last four years I was feeling very satisfied," he says. "I've had a great four years at Young. The children's choir, Franklin--all of it was great. But I'm ready to move on. I'm really excited about what lies ahead. Hartford's not far from New York, you know. That's ultimately where I want to be. I'm going to make it too."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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