Melody Herzfeld has known countless dramatic moments. Director of the drama department at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland since 2003, she has transformed a multitude of theatrical wannabes into stage-worthy actors brimming with confidence in their craft.
But Herzfeld faced an unspeakable, heart-pounding moment of personal drama barely four months ago when a former student armed with a rifle and bearing a thirst to kill ran into the school building. The instructor kept 65 of her charges safe in her small office for two hours while Nikolas Cruz murdered 14 young learners and three teachers, and wounded 17 more, in a senseless massacre on Valentine’s Day.
Douglas students quickly rose from the depths of their despair. Revived and revved by the rallying cry, #MSD Strong, they fought back with music and art, raised their voices against gun violence across the nation and demanded assurances of student safety – and nothing less.
MSD’s recovery reached a new plateau the night of June 10 when Herzfeld stepped onto the stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York City, just steps from Broadway, to accept a prestigious Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education. The honor, given by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University, recognizes a K-12 theater educator who has made a monumental impact on the lives of students and who embodies the highest standards of the profession.
Still, that wasn’t the evening’s main New York moment. MSD drama students surprised the crowd by singing an emotional rendition of “Seasons of Love,” from the musical Rent. Their center stage performance received a standing ovation and moved many in the audience to tears.
A first-rate break-out solo by Kali Cloughery grabbed the attention of a gallery filled mainly with Broadway, music and film performers.
Applause echoed through the storied chamber as Herzfeld stepped into the spotlight with the Tony in her hand.
“Next to the passing of my dear parents and in-laws, marrying the love of my life, and the birth of my amazing sons and reuniting with my theater students, there has never been a more defining moment of my life,” said the MSD drama instructor.
“As theater teachers, we teach kids by giving them space to be critiqued, yet not judged; giving them a spot in the light, yet not full stage; creating a circle of trust in which to fail; telling them long drawn-out stories so they can be better listeners and giving students simple responsibilities that are beneath them to encourage character,” she said.
Perhaps those comments brought special memories to Elijah Word, a young singer, dancer, and actor who was one of Herzfeld’s students at MSD. He stressed that he drew his theatrical inspiration and drive from her.
While at Douglas, Word said he attended a get-together for potential drama students. “We were in there one day, playing a game and getting to know each other. We all had to sing, and, after I did, the teacher came over to me and said, ‘You have to audition for the drama club.’ ”
Herzfeld “put me in the play, Pippin,” a show he dearly loves. “From there, I got the acting bug. Ms. Herzfeld saw that I had talent and she nurtured it. She really helped me. And she made sure I kept my grades up.”
Coincidentally, in early April, Word won a Carbonell – the South Florida theater community’s equivalent of a Tony – for Best Supporting Actor/Music for portraying James “Thunder” Early in the musical, Dreamgirls at the Broward Stage Door Theater. “It was so funny.” Word said, “Ms. Herzfeld was there on Carbonell Night because some MSD students were performing.”
Overall, Word said with a special pride, Melody Herzfeld “really deserved the Tony award.”
In her acceptance speech, the drama teacher shared some lessons she gave her students before the tragic event. “I remember, on Feb. 7, sharing a circle with my beloved students and encouraging them to be good to each other when times were trying, to keep the family together, accept everyone, and make a difference.”
“And I remember only a week later, on Feb. 14, a perfect day, where all these lessons in my life and in their short lives would be called upon to set into action.”
She recalled other meaningful words: “[I] stressed to them to be selective as they formulate relationships while welcoming every single side that exists in the world. And also, how to begin again.”
MSD students followed her advice. Just a week after the shooting, Herzfeld’s students performed “Shine,” an original song, at a CNN town hall meeting on gun violence.
In fact, since February, Stoneman Douglas students have organized a national school walkout and a march on Washington and continue to call for changes to ensure safety and security of students
As she concluded her address, the drama director said: “Thank you, Stoneman Douglas High School and my fellow Eagles. We have all known the future of the world is about collaborative creativity and here we are, the future, changed for good. MSD Strong…thank you.”
Herzfeld is the fourth person to receive the Excellence in Theatre Education Award which comes with a $10,000 prize, which goes to the Stoneman Douglas theater program.