Once upon a director

Higginbottom returns for WWPS spring musical

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published April 6, 2012


WARREN — “There’s a magic in theater,” James Higginbottom said while taking a break in the Warren Woods Middle School auditorium backstage area as cast members of the upcoming “Once Upon A Mattress” viewed their costumes for the first time.

Higginbottom, cast and crew will bring that magic to the WWMS stage this weekend for the school’s musical production of “Once Upon A Mattress.” Curtain call is 7 p.m. April 13-14 and 2 p.m. April 15 inside the auditorium, located on 12 Mile Road, just west of Schoenherr.

It was the show that almost didn’t happen until Higginbottom — who retired as WWPS musical director in 2004 — came forward. As budget cuts loomed, there was a chance the district would not have its annual spring production. That’s when Higginbottom stepped in and offered to direct the show at no cost to the district. He is volunteering his talent for free.

“I couldn’t let it die,” he said. “The kids are too important. The only thing that brought me back was the idea the kids would not have a show.

“These kids deserve an audience,” he continued. “We want people to see the show. These are good kids doing good things.”

Fundraising efforts through the Warren Woods Drama Club parents group were underway to make sure the traditional spring production was possible. Higginbottom even solicited help through his Facebook page. He said “Once Upon A Mattress” is the fourth most popular release from Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“This is a silly show,” he said. “Something has made it wonderful.”

The music man wears many hats as director.

“You’re responsible for the music, the dancing, the dramatics, the lighting, the sets,” he said. “It’s to see that everything really happens. It’s to ensure you’re ready when the curtain goes up.”

Higginbottom was drawn to the arts at a young age. Because he was asthmatic, the youngster stuck with indoor activities, discovering dancing and music. Although family members were not performers, Higginbottom “came from a family that really loved music.”

When he entered college, Higginbottom set his sights on becoming a nuclear physicist. But after his first semester at the University of Michigan, the freshman changed his major.

“Music was calling me,” said Higginbottom, who earned a music education degree from U of M, where he also studied psychology and was the drum major of the Michigan Marching Band.

After spending one year in Connecticut, Higginbottom returned to metro Detroit, where he began teaching as the choral director at Warren Woods High School, which is now the middle school.

In 1970, the school’s assistant principal suggested Higginbottom organize a musical. He chose “South Pacific” and from there, the legendary WWPS spring musicals began leaving their mark.

“I love the education level. You show kids brand-new things and you open their eyes,” he said. “We talk about caring. They learn that, and that’s what it’s all about to me. I don’t want them to be on stage as themselves. I want their characters to walk on stage.”

Higginbottom relocated to the Tower High School building in the 1980s when the district’s two high schools merged to become Warren Woods Tower High School on Bunert Road. In addition to the music program, Higginbottom also taught behavior science. Warren Woods alumni also may remember his wife, Barbara, also a WWPS teacher. The couple celebrates 45 years of marriage this year.

About 27 high school students and 22 middle and elementary school students make up the “Once Upon A Mattress” cast.

“About another 15 kids are in the pit (orchestra) or backstage,” Higginbottom said.

The Broadway musical is based on the “The Princess and the Pea” fable. The elaborate costumes audience members will see in the performance came from Costume World in Florida. The same costumes have been used on Broadway.

WWT senior Morgan Zalewski was cast as Queen Aggravain.

“She has many personalities,” Zalewski said. “She’s kind of crazy. She loves her son a lot. She’s trying to make sure he doesn’t get married.”

This is her second time under Higginbottom’s direction. In third grade, Zalewski was cast in the WWPS production of “Jane Eyre,” Higginbottom’s final bow before he retired.

“He makes it a really fun experience for us,” Zalewski said.

Senior Jacob Carroll portrays the queen’s son, the Prince, and senior Emily Pauling was cast as Princess Winnifred. The characters develop an attraction to each other during the show.

“She’s just kind of out there,” Pauling said of her alter ego. “She doesn’t have any limits.”

“The prince is pretty smitten,” Carroll said. “He sees someone amazing. He’s just blown away. He has never seen anything like her.”

Also in the spotlight is sophomore Megan Satawa, who portrays the minstrel, a character forever causing trouble for others.

“It’s kind of scary, but it’s fun,” Satawa said of performing before a live audience. “I like it.”

Tickets for “Once Upon A Mattress” are $9 for adults, $6 for students and senior citizens, and $5 for groups of 10 or more — pre-purchased only. For tickets, contact wwt dramaclub@hotmail.com or call Sue Pauling at (586) 215-6629.