Earlier this month, I wrote an advance for “Girl/Group: A Daughter’s Tale,” a play written by and starring Jersey City teacher Susan Murphy, that was published in The Jersey Journal on Friday, June 17. Susan was nice enough to give me press tickets to her show and I went with my dear friend/co-worker Khier Casino. We really enjoyed the show which was ridiculously awesome and I asked if I could write this and throw it up on NJ.com. You can see it as it appeared on NJ.com, along with a gallery of photos from the show, here.
Doo-wop and dreams light up stage at La MaMa in New York City
Fifty years ago in the Marion section of Jersey City, three teenage girls and an ambitious songwriter chased their dreams of stardom to the sweet sounds of doo-wop, smooth harmonies and very Jersey outbursts like, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph – that was f—ing gorgeous!”
Snyder High School teacher Susan Murphy’s play “Girl/Group: A Daughter’s Tale,” remembers the real-life story of The Carmelettes – Virginia Verga, Vicky Cevetello and Murphy’s mother, Angela LaPrete – as well as Verga’s older sister, songstress Beatrice “Bea” Verdi who was known for her simultaneously vulgar and religious language.
The play opens with Murphy as herself in a recording studio, blown away by how much she sounds like her mother. As she listens, she is thrown back in time where she becomes her mother Angela and sings with The Carmelettes.
Throughout the show, Murphy switches back and forth seamlessly from 43-year-old Susan to teenage Angela without missing a beat, thanks to creative lighting by Sarah Rae Murphy and Mario Giacalone’s direction.
“I always had to work to strike a balance between the present and the past,” said Murphy. “I have to credit (Giacalone) for reminding me – ‘Don’t lose the youth,’ or, ‘That’s a little old.'”
Under Bea’s (Drew Citron) guidance, Angela, Virginia (Alison Scaramella) and Vickie (Jenna Smith) sing back-up for greats like Neil Sedaka and Carole King and get signed to Alpine Records.
With the help of a live band, the actresses sing several Carmelette ditties transcribed by musical director Kris Kakul. In the dark, intimate Club at La MaMa Experimental Theatre, their performances glow and bring the girl group’s songs to life in ways that, unfortunately, 45 rpm records simply cannot.
Yet the cast and crew never forget that ultimately, they are paying tribute to the journey of three very real Jersey girls – life-size portraits of The Carmelettes hang behind the band and Angela Murphy is welcomed at every show.
The play is intensely personal and fearlessly confronts Murphy’s own conflicted emotions about settling for teaching; discusses the racial issues that complicated Italian Angela’s relationship with Murphy’s father, an Irishman; and depicts the eventual break-up of The Carmelettes when Bea and Virginia decide to go their own way.
It also shows audiences a glimpse of a time in Jersey City when young people met at CYO Dances at Mount Carmel Church, being in a diverse area meant you had both Italian and Irish neighbors, and girls smoked while eating grapes to pass the time.
In the end, reliving her mother’s past gives Susan perspective on her own life as an artist and enables her to deliver a passionate performance of an original tune by Murphy called “Sweet Song.”
Murphy said that working on this play and production over the past eight years really has helped her see that being an artist is about more than becoming rich and famous.
“It’s true that being a teacher was not my first choice and if by some stroke of universal grace I suddenly had a chance to make a full living from performance, I would do that in a second. But reality is, most artists have to make a living in another way and I think at 43, I have sort of come to terms with that.
“Having actually brought (this play) to life in the way it was brought to life kind of makes me feel like there’s nothing to regret in not pursuing a more straight-ahead performance career.”
Murphy says response to her play has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It became increasingly amazing. It was really, really a tremendous experience,” said Murphy, who noted that as word spread about the play, more and more people began packing in The Club.
On closing night, Murphy said they had a “capacity plus” crowd and a special surprise – all three of The Carmelettes.
“It was received beautifully by them. At the end of the show, after the curtain call, we introduced them and gave them flowers,” said Murphy.
A cast and crew party was held at 15 Fox Place in Jersey City, a restaurant owned by Murphy’s aunt Kathryn who makes a special “appearance” as a little girl who plays “Nuns” with her friends and pesters her big sister Angela in the show.
At the party, The Carmelettes truly reunited.
“At some point, I turned around and the three of them were sitting, facing one another, trying to work out harmonies of songs they remembered and they started singing together for the first time in 50 years,” said Murphy. “They sounded better than we sounded!”
Verga told Murphy, however, that “Girl/Group” was a great tribute not only to The Carmelettes, but also to her late sister.
“Virginia is so sweet,” said Murphy. “She said with tears in her eyes, ‘You brought my sister back.'”
Murphy has been encouraged by the success of the show and hopes to do more work with it in the future. She does, however, have other show ideas.
“I would love to explore the mind of the teacher. It’s a fierce experience being a teacher sometimes, particularly in the inner city,” she said. “What would it be like inside the teacher’s mind with frustrations, triumphs, moments of compassion and moments of complete and utter disdain?”
Ultimately, Murphy is determined to continue creating art.
“I’ve never taken on something as big as this before – with writing and production – and it feels like oh, well, that’s what I do and I will do it again, even if I’m gonna teach. The whole process has made me feel like my life is not separated.”
Watching this play, which featured “Oh Neil!” by Carole King, inspired me to write this song, “It’s Too Late,” which is a mash-up of sorts. I wrote the verses and sampled the chorus from the great Carole King song of the same name. The quality isn’t that good (my laptop mic is way too sensitive!) but whatever