Jill Machen takes a bow after more than 30 years of JCC high school musicals
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Jill Machen takes a bow after more than 30 years of JCC high school musicals

"She really helped to elevate and professionalize theater here, while at the same time finding a place for every teen."

Jill Machen (Photo by Lauren Renee Photography)
Jill Machen (Photo by Lauren Renee Photography)

Every year, for the better part of three decades, students have brought down the curtain on high school musicals at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh with a special coda.

Often running 10 minutes, the pieces give the cast’s graduating seniors a stage to recap four years of their JCC theater experience with a medley of songs from previous productions.

And every one, since they started in the early 1990s, has featured an homage to the woman at the center of it all: Jill Machen.

“It’s just so touching. Those things — every year, they get me,” said Machen, whose 34-year tenure as the JCC musicals’ director, producer and choreographer ended after “Freaky Friday” wrapped its run in February. “These shows, they were just a safe place for them to be. That remained constant. What could be better than giving kids an experience that makes them feel good?”

“A lot of kids, they didn’t find their niche at school, and they’d find it in the musicals,” she said. “If you weren’t on a sports team — this was the same way. We were a team, a winning team.”

“Mama Mia,” directed by Jill Machen at the JCC (Photo by Sara Stock Mayo)
Machen continues to satiate her theater bug at Winchester Thurston School and for Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. But her achievements are the stuff of Pittsburgh legend at the JCC, including dozens of productions and hundreds of student actors from 13 area high schools.

Joyce Offerman grew up in musical theater with Machen. Machen later directed Offerman’s daughter, Weasie, in at least three JCC musicals before she graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 2009.

“Jill is just extraordinary — she’s a mom, she’s a coach, she’s a teacher, she was all these things rolled into one for those kids,” said Offerman, a mother of two who lives in Shadyside. “She’s got a sixth sense of how to make these shows work. I just adore her. She has a gift about her.”

Machen doesn’t slow down. But she does look back.

The Pittsburgh native reminisced with the Chronicle about theater credits dating back before her memory began. She sang and danced in shows as a young child.

In junior high, Machen acted in a JCC presentation of “Sweet Charity” at the YMCA in Oakland. The theater bug bit hard.

She starred each year in high school in JCC musicals led by Gerry Buncher, then “the man behind the shows,” Machen said. In 1981, after graduating college, Machen came back to the JCC to direct 90 kids in “Annie With A Twist,” a mashup of “Annie” and “Oliver” that Machen created.

In 1989, the JCC called again, and Machen directed high school students in the musical “Leader of the Pack.”

She didn’t leave until more than three decades later.

In the early years, Machen scraped by on limited budgets for ambitious productions. She remembers painting cardboard sets with watercolors borrowed from the JCC’s preschool.

It didn’t stay that way long.

The musicals, which were staged in Levinson Hall and later Katz Theater to sold-out crowds, benefited from Machen’s professional eye, work ethic and attention to detail. For 15 years, she even helped lead workshops in New York City for Broadway actors and insiders.

“The Boyfriend,” directed by Jill Machen at the JCC (Photo by Sara Stock Mayo)
Machen had little tricks that, some say, made her shows so appealing. For example, she’d never first pick a musical, then look for a cast. She’d always see who auditioned, then build shows around them.

As her musicals gained momentum, Machen combed through thrift shop bins and worked with a glue gun — never a sewing needle — to create costumes, eventually assembling a massive arsenal. She hired professionals to handle sound. Students, excited to be part of the productions, fundraised through bake sales, car washes and cabaret events to offset budgets that eventually ran into thousands of dollars.

“She’s a woman who knows her craft,” said Rachael Speck, JCC’s director of children and family division, day camping and teen engagement. Born in Harrisburg and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Speck came to Pittsburgh’s JCC 10 years ago, when Machen was well into her tenure.

“She really helped to elevate and professionalize theater here, while at the same time finding a place for every teen,” Speck said.

Machen’s teens went on to shine pretty brightly. She directed journalist Bari Weiss and Benjy Grinberg, who worked with native sons Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa. Amy Lutz became a news anchor, Ilana Toeplitz a theater professor, Kate Rogal a TV and movie actress. Dozens went on to become parents, doctors and lawyers.

Pittsburgh native Andee Lowenstein raised three children in Churchill and, later Squirrel Hill — and all participated in JCC musicals.

“Jill’s a miracle worker,” Lowenstein said. “Some of these kids could sing, some not so much. And she made all of them look like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers out there.”

This being the JCC in Squirrel Hill, many teens hailed from Taylor Allderdice High School or were Jewish. (Like the JCC, there weren’t religious requirements for Machen’s musicals.)

But Machen employed orchestra pits with musicians from Winchester Thurston School or Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts. There were actors from Central Catholic. Some came from as far as Fox Chapel and Montour schools.

Jill Machen’s daughter Lindsay Machen, who is an ophthalmologist outside of Philadelphia, said her view of her mother’s musicals “really started with admiration.”

“It made me feel and appreciate that I had the cool mom,” she said. “Having a mom in the theater made the house lively and fun and musical. And these shows, they just felt like such a spectacle.

“She tried to give teenagers a place where they’d be wholly accepted, where they could be themselves,” she added.

Jennifer Machen, Machen’s younger daughter, starred in her mom’s shows as an infant. She was also bitten by the theater bug. Her first speaking role came in elementary school: Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” Her mother directed her as a Winchester Thurston freshman as a sidekick to Lindsay Machen’s lead in “42nd Street.”

Jennifer Machen acted professionally in New York City. Today, she lives in Chicago.

“She expected a lot, but we kind of knew that,” Jennifer Machen said of her mom. “She gives 110% and expects that from everybody else.”

“She taught me a million things; she taught me to listen and then respond, which is a huge thing in acting,” she said. “Her motto, ‘If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late.’ That’s really stuck with me.”

Machen also inspired student actress Carin Bendas Blazer, who grew up in Greenfield and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 2002. After acting in “The Boyfriend” freshman year, Blazer took roles in “Grease,” “42nd Street” and “Smile.”

“As a teenager, I remember imagining what I would write in my Tony Award acceptance speech — I love the confidence! — and Jill Machen was always the first person I thanked in that imaginary speech,” Blazer said.

“Observing Jill and looking up to her for so many years, I learned that there are so many ways to be a successful artist,” she added. “Being on Broadway isn’t the only way to make a difference and to be successful in your field. I’ve used my acting to make a difference in so many young lives.”

Nancy Polinsky Johnson, a self-described “theater geek” in her youth, moved to Pittsburgh in 1985 but didn’t enter Machen’s orbit for several years.

The WQED personality and former Shady Avenue publisher still regrets that she didn’t push her older son, Michael, to audition for Machen’s musicals earlier.

She said her son “has always been such an incredibly funny guy, with great comic timing, and I think Jill recognized that.”

Johnson kept going to Machen’s shows even after her kids stopped performing in them.

“She’s a creative director, a dynamic choreographer,” Johnson said. “She works well with young people. And she brings a level of professionalism that I didn’t expect. She brings out something in these kids — it surprises and delights me more every year!”

At the same time, Machen worked at the JCC, she led musicals for 12 years at Taylor Allderdice. For the past 20 years, she’s taught dance, directed the middle school musical and choreographed the upper school musical at Winchester Thurston. For the latter, she’s won Gene Kelly Awards, which honor excellence in high school musical theater in Pittsburgh.

For the past 15 years, Machen also has helped stage Hillel JUC’s “Campus Superstar” — think of “American Idol” or “The Voice” for Pittsburgh college students.

“I do have a lot of energy,” Machen laughed. “I think it’s from hanging out with 14- to 18-year-olds for so long!”

That doesn’t surprise her daughter Jennifer.

“It’s sad future generations won’t get Jill Machen shows,” she said. “But she’ll continue to shine bright in so many ways.” PJC

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