Thursday, May 3, 2007
I wrote this feature for the May 4, 2007 issue of National Catholic Reporter.
By rights, Mary-Mitchell Campbell should have died at 21. That was when she misjudged a curve on a mountainous road in North Carolina, causing her car to flip over several times. When it finally came to a stop, dozens of people rushed toward it, certain the occupant would either be dead or seriously injured. It took four of them to pry her out. When they did, she emerged with only a cut on her elbow.
Before the accident she had been praying. Then the violent crashing and sensation of tumbling over and over. But as the car slowed, Ms. Campbell recalls feeling peaceful and knowing everything would be fine. But, she soon realized, never the same.
“It was a turning point. I felt there was definitely something I was supposed to do.”
It took the 2004 presidential election a decade later for her to find out what.
“I was watching so many people be mean to each other,” she says, curled up on the brown leather sofa in her Manhattan apartment. “The country was so divided. It felt like we had lost our connection of how to treat people. I woke up one morning and decided, ‘I have got to do something.’”
What she did was put her career as Broadway musical director and Juilliard professor on hold for several months to work in an orphanage in India. The experience was so profound that she is now building an orphanage of her own there -- she expects to purchase the land this spring; completion will depend on fundraising.
“I felt responsible for what I knew,” she says, sipping from a cup of carryout coffee her assistant has brought her. “It meant everything had to be different. My entire way of living had to shift and all my priorities.”
She sold her house in New York to put the money into her project. She lives now in a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper, Upper West Side with Coleman, a five-year-old shepherd mix named after songwriter Cy Coleman who was an early mentor. She still teaches at Juilliard as music director in the drama division, having become one of the youngest persons ever to serve on the faculty at the prestigious school when she was hired at 29 in 2003. She still takes on major Broadway shows, last season serving as musical director for the revival of “Sweeney Todd” and this season doing the same for the revival of “Company.” Between several trips a year to India, she does these things, and many more -- including serving as music director for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camp’s annual fund-raising gala and performing at such venues as the White House and Carnegie Hall. That’s an awful lot of accomplishment for someone who’s only 33.
“It’s important to show I can do both, still have a fruitful career and be an active and responsible citizen,” she says.
The India project is only one of Ms. Campbell’s charitable endeavors. She also sends Juilliard students and young Broadway performers to offer arts education to young people in Homestead, FL, and Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She formed a nonprofit corporation to package it all, calling it ASTEP for Artists Striving to End Poverty. It operates with about a half million dollar budget, an executive director who used to be her personal assistant and a couple hundred volunteers in various capacities from the theatrical community. Board members include Broadway stars Kristin Chenoweth, Gavin Creel and Raul Esparza.
Both worlds coexist in Ms. Campbell’s apartment. While one bedroom houses ASTEP’s administrative functions, the living room nurtures the performing artist. An oak upright piano is against one wall with photographs framed atop and hung above, including one with Ms. Chenoweth, a close friend, after they had both performed at the White House.
“Our focus is on children in all our decision-making, but I’ve seen the lives of the artists change so dramatically as well. I watch them come back much better artists with so much to say and the need to say it, especially the Juilliard kids who have a lot of technique but not always the passion. They come back and really flourish.”
She calls it the ripple effect. The children use drama and dance to deal with their real-life problems involving drug abuse, crime and domestic violence and the performers experience the lives of people growing up in extreme poverty.
“I feel like there’s really a solid shift with people taking hold of the idea that art can change the world. I always believed it, but I’ve seen it so much now I really believe it. There’s something sacred about the space created when artists create together. Walls come down.”
While Ms. Campbell is helping tear down walls in the lives of the poor, her musical talent propelled her forward before the usual show business walls could even form. At 3 she asked for a piano for Christmas, even though she had never played one. She didn’t get it, but by the time she was 5 she could walk up to any piano and play by ear. At 7 she was taking lessons and got a piano of her own after a man who owed her father money, and who also just happened to own a piano store, paid off his debt with the instrument. By 10 she was playing in restaurants in her native Wilson, NC, “making decent money.”
She came to New York after graduating with a degree in piano performance from Furman University with her husband, a saxophonist who was pursing a career in finance. In a time-honored tradition, she took work as an office temp, but only for three months before her career began to take off. “It was almost like the Red Sea parted. It was a shock.”
The marriage ended as their careers went separate ways. Now Ms. Campbell finds herself one of a rare breed -- a female musical director on Broadway. For “Company,” she received, in many cases, better notices than the show as a whole. In review after review she was singled out, with praise like “the show simple wouldn’t work without the excellent orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell,” with another citing her “truly miraculous new orchestrations.”
“My success with my career is a byproduct of my helping other people,” she says. “It’s not what I thought when I made the decision it was more important than Broadway. God rewards you in ways you weren’t expecting. I feel very grateful.”
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