By Donald Gilpin
“A transcendental experience” is how Alex Mitnick, Princeton Montessori School’s (PM) Emmy Award-winning music teacher, described the creation of Born to Learn: The Maria Montessori Story.
He wrote and produced the hour-long musical celebrating the life of Maria Montessori, the educator, scientist, and founder of the child-centered method of education known as the Montessori method, to celebrate PM’s 50th anniversary and Montessori’s 150th birthday.
The production at PM last spring was so successful that Mitnick recorded a professional soundtrack and is now bringing the show to the public for the first time at the Hopewell Theater on Saturday, March 7, with shows at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
“I was so moved by the story of her life,” said Mitnick, who started his research a year and a half ago after being commissioned to write the musical. “It was amazing. So many aspects of my life intersect around this work — from being a parent, to being a teacher, to being a teacher for so long, to being in this amazing Montessori environment.”
He continued, “It poured out of me in a way I hadn’t expected. I had a lot of personal and artistic breakthroughs as I was writing this show. I cried quite a bit as I was composing certain songs.”
Mitnick didn’t know what he was getting into when he began exploring the historical and biographical records, but the themes of Montessori’s life and of Mitnick’s musical, the 15th he has written, could not be more timely.
“So I sat there day after day and whittled down this story into 10 songs that spanned her life, from her early days as a child growing up in Rome and fighting for her rights as a woman at the university, to discovering her passion for working with children, to facing down the authorities of the time and saying these children don’t belong in these violent conditions. She took Rome’s unwanted children and started working with them. It was remarkable. You can imagine the conditions these children were living in in 1896.”
Mitnick emphasized the predominance of the theme of peace — in Montessori’s life and teaching, in his musical, and in education under the Montessori system. “There she is, a woman who had seen both world wars firsthand,” he said as he described Montessori, exiled first from Fascist Italy, then Holland, preparing to move to India later in her life. “She’d seen how bad a human can get, through Mussolini and Hitler, and she realized that it all starts in childhood. Through her research she began to understand that if we were ever to really put an end to war, it would start with the children.”
Mitnick continued, “Peace education is a central theme in all Montessori schools, peace in your tone of voice, peace in your body language, in your eye contact, and creating an open, clean, clear environment for children to be in. This idea of peace was to her the only real solution to ending war.”
In India, Montessori was befriended by Mahatma Gandhi, who spoke at her teacher training sessions as together they spread their message of peace. “The show ends with a duet between Maria and Gandhi, with the whole chorus singing this almost mantra-like repetition called ‘The Power of Peace,’” Mitnick said. “It’s a very moving ending. Given what’s happening in our world politically, as I was writing these songs and realizing how right she was, I was blown away.”
Born to Learn stars PM Administrator Kristen VonWachenfeldt as Maria Montessori, and features a cast of 10 professional local performers in addition to 20 PM students in grades three through six. VonWachenfeldt and the students were all part of the original production at PM last April.
Beyond the March 7 Hopewell performances, Mitnick is looking forward to a growing future for Born to Learn. He has raised money to produce an album of the show, “something people can download and have in their life,” and he’ll be doing another production at a Montessori school in Jersey City at the end of March. “The ultimate goal is to be able to license this as a package at Montessori schools all over the world,” he said. “This Hopewell Theater show is one more step in scaling it up, getting it out there. I’ll be videotaping it to use as a promotional tool.”
Born to Learn may be the first of a series of biographical musicals Mitnick could create for young people, families, and people of all ages, he suggested.
Mitnick noted a number of highlights in the show and a variety of musical styles as the plot covers the span of Montessori’s life from 1870 to 1952. He mentioned, among others, a song called “Wild Ones” with a Hamilton-style rap in the middle; the memorable finale “The Power of Peace”; and the number “Mussolini and Me,” where Montessori reflects on her successful work as director of Italy’s schools, opening about 100 Montessori schools and training centers all around the country before she realized how her methods clashed with Mussolini’s ideology and she ultimately had to leave Italy.
The title song, “Born to Learn,” emerges from a moment when the protagonist is trying to finish her degree in Rome and is about to give up fighting against the abuse and sexism that surrounds her. She is walking through the streets — depressed, lonely, and scared — when she witnesses a homeless girl with ragged shirt and no shoes, playing with a red ribbon. In the moment, the child is completely absorbed in play as no adult could ever be.
That was a turning point for Montessori, who suddenly realized “that learning is our birthright, that our natural state is to be able to absorb information and learn as long as the environment is designed to facilitate learning,” Mitnick said. “Mother Nature does the rest if you trust the process.”
Mitnick noted that the Hopewell Theater is small and urged interested theater-goers to buy tickets in advance at info.hopewelltheater.com or by phone at (609)466-1964.
“This is an important story that a lot of people will be inspired by, whether they are familiar with Montessori or not,” said Mitnick. “Dr. Montessori is an influential character who was ahead of her time as a woman disrupting the status quo. Her journey is about much more than the educational philosophy she pioneered. Today, especially, it’s a story that everyone should hear.”
Read the article here.