The audience roared with applause as the cast of the show made their final bows. With a stomp of the foot, the 15 cast members put their arms out towards the tech team in the back of the room before waving to the audience. The crew joined and filled the stage as the lights slowly dimmed, the applause still going. Then it was over.
This would be the second time that The Master’s University Theatre Arts program performed “The Happiest Millionaire.” The first time that it was done was roughly 12 years ago. In light of its themes and the character growth in the story, this semester hit closer to home than anyone saw coming, especially with 13 seniors saying goodbye to the program.
“This group has been part of a lot together. They have grown up through a lot and have gone through a lot together,” said Tricia Hulet, director of the TMU theatre arts program. “The themes of really learning to cherish life and not idolize even the good gifts, but to know it’s okay to have change. And not just okay, but good. Change is good and necessary. It is a mark that the LORD is bringing us to the next season that we are prepared for.”
Hulet shared that during the first “The Happiest Millionaire” performance, over a decade ago, the program was still young and getting its bearings. But it was with this semester’s performance that the program really solidified into what it is today.
“The themes of the show—that life is a precious and wonderful thing, and that you can’t hoard it or store it up in a vault—really became something that we talked about a lot from that point forward,” said Hulet.
Hulet shared that the people who came and were a part of that first showing “set a tone of vitality, love for one another, pursuit of Christ, and excellence in the arts.” These students came from all over TMU campus, with different backgrounds and studies.
“It wasn’t a theatre club,” Hulet said. “It was all these people who never would have known each other, who came together because they loved Christ and loved this art form and they wanted to learn to do it well. Then the theme of the show just spilled over.”
This is what Hulet thinks of when she thinks of this particular show. She did not want to compare the two, but she wanted to see and love the newness of this new group of students and how their performance in this beloved story reflected the growth of the program.
For 13 seniors, this was their last show as part of the program. They were greatly impacted by the themes, and how the LORD used the story of “The Happiest Millionaire” to teach them some final lessons for their last semester.
“The theme that hit me the most was just making the most of life where you’re at and realizing it’s a gift,” said senior Josh Hilton.
Hilton got to play the role of the happiest millionaire, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, who struggled greatly with change as his daughter became engaged and readied to leave the house. But as he prepared to graduate and the show came to a close, the themes and lessons from the story resonated with him more than he thought they would.
“If I can learn these lessons now–the preciousness of life and wanting to make the most of it, to love it but not hold onto it. The younger I learn that, the more my life is going to mean to me,” Hilton said.
Another thing Hilton learned was, ironically, the opposite lesson that Anthony J. Drexel Biddle needed to learn.
“I was learning to hang onto these moments now and to love them for what they are. That was the tension in the show, was to let go of moments but still hold onto them. While Anthony was learning to let go, I feel like I was learning to hold onto them,” said Hilton.
Zach Hilton, another cast member and senior at TMU, shared how the themes showed him to “use life to the utmost because it is slipping away.”
Zach Hilton believes that Livingston, the character he played, was inspired to live life to the fullest by his father, when he joined the Marines.
“Graduation is scary, and I don’t know what life is going to look like afterward,” said Zach Hilton. “But I shouldn’t try to hold onto the Master’s experience, trying to save it up, because it’s going away and that’s fine. Life’s out there to be plunged into, to be grasped and handled instead of trying to hold onto a moment that has already passed.”
For Zach Hilton, it has been a comforting thought. He has been at Master’s for a long time, but for him “life keeps going, God’s in control, and it is good.”
“There’s a big line in the play that, funny enough, the character of Father forgets it until later on in the show,” said TMU senior Peyton Halaby, who was a tech lead and cast member for “The Happiest Millionaire.” “’You can’t save up life. You can’t store it up. You can’t hoard it in a vault. You’ve got to use it. You’ve got to spend it, and the more of it that you use, the more of it you have.’ That’s something that struck a chord with me because I’m about to graduate and go on into life. I’m engaged and life is all of a sudden a lot more real.”
Halaby explained how he wanted to make good use of his life and not let it just slip away.
Micah de Leon, shared how the theme of family in the play impacted her.
“When we come from a really loving family and we don’t want to leave, we have to at some point,” said de Leon. “Transitioning through that is terrifying. Cordy’s transition towards staying where she really loved and then being able to marry Angier and move on…that struck a lot with me.”
De Leon is preparing to leave home for medical school after graduation. She shared how TMU and the theatre program was a wonderful place to grow, but now it is time to move on.
“If I had to do it in one word, I think the theme would be family,” said Megan Hartung, a senior at TMU and the costume crew lead for the past semester. She shared how being a part of this particular semester was precious in working with the crew and cast, and then have an audience for the first time in over a year.
“On Friday night, when we opened, I was standing backstage and the first time the audience laughed I burst into tears,” said Hartung. “It was just such a precious thing and I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until we had it.”
Hartung’s response greatly resonated with Cordy, the female lead. Having come into her freshman year wanting to study politics, Hartung now graduates with a desire for learning costume design. Much like the character of Cordy, Hartung took the brave step to try something new and found something that she loved.
“To put it in simple terms: growth,” said Michaela Johnston, a senior and the crew lead for props, as she spoke on the theme of the play. “Part of growth is change and recognizing that in life and in family, things are going to change. People go through stages of life and the parent-child relationship changes, but that doesn’t mean that you have to let go of the relationship in its totality.”
Johnston shared that “it is good to grow and to change. It’s how life has been designed. You’re not supposed to reach one point and hold it and never move past that.”
“That’s a big theme, that line, you can’t save, store up, or hoard life in a vault. You’ve got to live it and you’ve got to dive into it. As believers what does that look like for us? Well, we’re not here for ourselves or to satisfy our own desires or to chase our own dreams,” said Seth Bowling, the assistant director of TMU theatre arts as well as a TMU alumnus.
All of the seniors who were a part of this final semester experienced joys and struggles. Exhaustion, the slipping of time, work and school are some of the few examples of trials. One of the common struggles was that of pride and humility.
“I cannot think of myself when I am working on such a big project such as this, where every single little cog has to work,” said de Leon. “It was such a blessing when I saw a lot of people being selfless, demonstrating this form of charity and hospitality that even I could understand initially. That’s something that only Christ can give.”
The LORD taught students in this program humility, serving one another and loving each other hard. Halaby shared that the program helped him to grow by “taking the pride that I had and pushing it aside.”
Though there were many struggles, there was also so much growth and joy throughout the semester. It is the community of the theatre program and the friends that one makes while a part of it that really shines through and remains constant in the future years. Each senior had much to say in concerns to this truth.
“I look at every senior that is graduating and I have seen clear growth in their lives, from one stage to another,” Bowling said. “I hope that they are taking away a deeper love for the LORD, a deeper love for their fellow students, a deeper appreciation for hard work ethic and responsibility and preparation, as well as fond memories of the rewards of that work and preparation and seeing God’s work.”
“I hope they learned how to be good friends, good teammates, good parts of a whole no matter where they fit… They stepped into roles that they never thought they could fit,” Hulet said. “I hope that they see the LORD’s faithfulness. I hope that they see His power perfected in weakness, and that His grace is sufficient. I hope that they know that is not unique to TMU and TMU theatre, but it’s something that they take with them wherever God puts them.”