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Teacher plays lead role in Broadway star's career

Two lines out of Jonathan Groff's mouth while auditioning for the eighth-grade play, and Suzanne Fisher knew "he was going to get the lead. I was just blown away.''

Groff has gotten a lot of leads since that day in 1999 at Conestoga Valley Middle School in Lancaster County. He is a Grammy Award-winning Broadway and off-Broadway star with a who's who list of credits and co-actors.

"I knew there was something really unique about this boy,'' said Fisher, an English teacher for 41 years, and the director of middle school plays for 39 of them. "After our final dress rehearsal, I sat him down and told him, 'You have an incredibly unique talent. You could do this for a living.'''

Groff looked at Fisher kind of stunned, she said, but he took her advice to seek parts at local playhouses to hone his acting skills.

He calls Fisher a "special person'' who has played a lead role in his life.

"In eighth grade, I was just focusing on doing a good job; I hadn't really been thinking about my future,'' he said.

"But Mrs. Fisher inspired me to think ahead, and that's what sparked my interest in auditioning for the Fulton Opera House and the Ephrata Playhouse  - two local institutions that completely changed the trajectory of my life.''

'It was riveting'

Groff actually came to Fisher's attention when he tried out for the seventh-grade play, and earned a small part.

A year later, his eighth-grade play audition using "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown'' left Fisher in amazement.

"I had been holding on to this western-comedy, 'Best in the West,' for a few years because I knew it would require a real talent to play the lead. As soon as Jonathan auditioned, I said, 'OK, this is the year I do that play.'

"It was amazing. As he burst through those swinging doors, he was in character so intently that it was riveting. You couldn't take your eyes off of him.''

When she spoke with him about becoming an actor, Fisher told him if he did she would be at every play.

Sour note, then 'The Sound of Music'

Ironically, Groff failed to get the lead part in his senior play in high school, "Les Misérables."

Distraught, his mother took him to New York to cheer him up. While there, auditions were being held for a Broadway tour of "The Sound of Music.''

He won the part of Rolf, was on tour for nine months, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Groff makes sure Fisher lives up to her promise. She is his guest at all of his performances.

"From New York, to LA, to London, Mrs. Fisher has been to everything,'' said Groff, who comes back to Conestoga Valley to speak to students.

But he says the real person students need to listen to is Fisher.

"She does more than create a play every year,'' Groff said. "Mrs. Fisher gives students the opportunity to collaborate and express themselves at a time in their lives when they need it the most.''

Groff put on one particularly meaningful performance in New York for Fisher and her family.

It was the summer of 2008 and Fisher and her husband, Dennis, who was dying of brain cancer and would pass away that November, went to New York to see Groff perform in "Hair.''

As Groff was singing the title song, he wandered into the audience and toward their seats.

"Dennis was bald, and Jonathan was wearing this hat and long-haired wig. He took it off and let it cascade over Dennis' head while he was singing,'' Fisher said. "Jonathan picked it up and kissed Dennis on the head. We both sat there crying.''

She said that gesture is typical of Groff and, while she greatly admires his talent, "I can't speak highly enough of the man he has become.''

He had a pretty good teacher.