Art and life imitate and overlap each other in a Broadway-style operetta that premiered at Middlebury College last Sunday night. Julian Gargiulo’s “Middlebury Musical” tells the story of the rocky romance of two Americans attending the college’s Italian summer language school. As is required of all actual students, Roger and Rosa have signed a pledge to speak no language but Italian during the six-week program or face expulsion without refund. But the young lovers find it hard to talk through some personal issues without resorting to English.
Enter Sally, Rosa’s confidant and another student in the program. Secretly in love with Roger, she persuades Rosa to use English to save the relationship — then nefariously informs on her friend, who happens to be the star of a musical that the program’s participants are rehearsing.
While “Middlebury Musical” may never be performed a second time, this writer will refrain from revealing the ending — except to note that Gargiulo has written a comedy, not a tragedy. Its plot also accords with a course he’s teaching in the language program this summer, entitled “Sex, Love and Betrayal in Italian Opera.”
Fittingly — and in keeping with the real-life pledge — the 40-minute show is sung and narrated entirely in Italian by a cast of 16 students enrolled in the Italian program. Gargiulo, a classical pianist, accompanies the generally serviceable cast, which includes the outstanding vocalist Sarah Nicol. Her performance as Rosa elicited shouts of “Brava!” from a nearly full house in the college’s concert hall.
In a pre-performance interview at a local bar, Gargiulo explained that he initially intended to feature his friend and co-director Roza Tulyaganova in “Middlebury Musical.” But the two decided it would be preferable for students to play all the parts, so the character originally called “Roza” became “Rosa.”
Tulyaganova, a soprano from Uzbekistan, has been auditing the Italian summer courses while working with Gargiulo, who studied piano at the Moscow State Conservatory. They were recently overheard conversing in Russian in a college cafeteria — and, sure enough, were reported to the language-school authorities, who duly threatened to expel Tulyaganova if she strayed from Italian again while on campus.
“It was pretty ironic,” Tulyaganova says — in English — at the off-campus bar. “It’s just like the show.”
Gargiulo, who lives in Manhattan, says he hopes to write a full-fledged Broadway musical some day. “Playing classical piano isn’t a very straight-ahead career,” he observes. “You’ve got to create your own path.”
That’s just what Gargiulo has been doing. He didn’t start playing piano until age 13, so, he notes, “I’m always in a hurry to get things done.” He completed a 10-year conservatory program in six years. Now 36, Gargiulo earns a living by performing in such venues as Carnegie Hall, the Moscow Conservatory Hall and the Verona Philharmonic Hall in Italy, while composing his own jazz-inflected, classical-style works.
Gargiulo has also been developing an onstage shtick that he describes as “semi-standup, influenced by [Jerry] Seinfeld.” Audiences are at least as taken with the sexy stories he tells about Beethoven and Schumann as they are with his renditions of those composers’ works, Gargiulo reports.
“I’m very much a people person,” he says in American-accented English. “I like to make ’em laugh.”
Gargiulo has another good story to tell about his father, a wealthy Neapolitan who became a Green Beret in the U.S. Army. “I don’t know why he did that,” says the son, whose black hair cascades in ringlets beyond his suit-jacket collar. “He’s just an unusual guy.”
It was that connection to the U.S., along with his mother’s American citizenship, that helped motivate Gargiulo’s 1995 move to the States from Italy.
An artist with a social conscience, Gargiulo devotes some of his time to enlisting fellow musicians in an advocacy group called 16000children.org, which he founded last year after learning that some 16,000 children worldwide die every day from hunger-related causes. “It’s a mind-boggling statistic,” Gargiulo says. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
Meanwhile, this summer he’s done his best to keep Italian in the heads of his students at the Middlebury Language School. Commencement for the program is this Friday, August 14.