Music director steps down from Curtains Up Pagosa

By Dale Johnson
Special to The PREVIEW
Curtains Up Pagosa (CUP) has announced the resignation of its longtime music director, Sally Neel.
In March, Neel was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer that has metastasized to her liver, resulting in a large tumor.
“To look at her, you would never know that this dreadful disease is now a part of her life,” said Dale Johnson, production director for CUP. “Her positive attitude and willingness to serve is as strong as ever. However, it has become necessary for her to slow down and to address this illness. She can no longer provide the energy it takes to produce a show. Obviously, this leaves a huge hole in the organization that we are now attempting to fill.”
Neel came from Dallas to Pagosa Springs with her husband, the Rev. Doug Neel, and her son, Robert. Being new to the community, they were looking for a way to acclimate Robert, providing him with a group of friends who also enjoyed the arts.
“We found an article in The Pagosa Springs SUN that announced auditions for Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Into the Woods,’” said Sally Neel. “I asked Robert if he would be interested in auditioning and he was thrilled.
“We went to the high school at the appointed time to find 20 or 30 people waiting to audition. Lisa Hartley, who was the elementary school music teacher, greeted us and signed Robert up for his audition time. Then she looked at me and asked if I was going to audition as well. I told her that I had no plans to do that, but Robert spilled the beans and told her that I am a professional musician. So, I got hooked. We both wound up auditioning and getting parts. Robert played Jack (and the Beanstalk) and I played his mother. And so began a nine-year love connection between the Neel family and Curtains Up Pagosa.
“Robert and I had a wonderful time on stage, though it was very clear that he had a far greater talent for acting than I did. He continued to act in CUP’s musical productions and I opted for the pit, first as their pianist, then as their musical director. Even my husband got involved. He enjoyed playing President Roosevelt in ‘Annie’ and King Herod in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ More recently, he has served as president of the executive board for CUP.”
In all, Sally Neel has directed the music for 15 productions that have included “The Beat Goes On,” “Forever Plaid Tidings,” “Annie,” “HollyDaze, “South Pacific,” “Cinderella,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Pippin,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Beehive,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Shrek,” “HollyDaze Too,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
“Working with production director Dale Johnson, and with the many hundreds of volunteers, actors, tech crews and musicians has been one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences of my life,” said Sally Neel. “It takes a great deal of time and commitment, but the payback has been a hundredfold more than what I put into it. I have a passion for this organization and their mission to mentor young people in the performing arts.
“I believe in the ability of the arts to bring out the best in humanity. I believe that it is important to offer children, youth and adults the opportunity to be on stage, to sing and dance, and to become a part of a creative team effort.”
CUP gives back to Pagosa’s young people through scholarships. CUP makes money through community donations and through the proceeds from its summer and winter musicals. After expenses, the money is dedicated to offering college scholarships to students majoring in the performing arts; to providing scholarships for high school students who wish to take private voice, dance or instrumental lessons; and to assisting the arts programs in the schools in paying for unbudgeted expenses. Not only that, but CUP has a large storage space filled with costumes and sets that are generously shared with other arts groups in town free of charge.
CUP is a completely grassroots organization. It was formed in 1989 by community members who enjoyed performing on stage and had no venue or organization through which to do that. So, they got together and wrote, produced and performed a play for the community.
They had such fun and received such wonderful support for their efforts that they did it again — and again. They formed a nonprofit organization called Music Boosters, allocating the money they made towards a scholarship program for student thespians. The name of the organization was changed to Curtains Up Pagosa in 2012 to give the organization a more theatrical identity.
The executive board, now under the leadership of local realtor Kim Moore, is made up of about eight dedicated community members. Volunteers make up the entirety of the organization, providing everything from front-of-house duties to advertising, backstage jobs, costuming, makeup and hair design, set design and construction, and lights and sound.
The directors, actors and instrumentalists in the pit are all volunteer as well, each putting in hours of preparation time.
“In truth, no one would put in this much work if it wasn’t fun,” said Sally Neel. “I have had a wonderful time working with such amazing and talented people. Our young people continue to blow me away with their enthusiasm, their willingness to work, their wonderful attitudes and their incredible talent. I have watched many go on to make a career for themselves in the arts, which is most gratifying. They are an extended family to me.”
Indeed, her time with CUP has come full circle. Robert Neel, a recipient of one of CUP’s college scholarships, graduated from Santa Fe University of Art and Design with a degree in musical theater and displayed his conducting and teaching skills for the first time as musical director for last summer’s production of “Sister Act.” He will also serve as musical director for this year’s winter production of “Elf.”
This is only a temporary fix, however.
CUP currently is seeking others who are willing to step into the role of music director. If you are interested in the position of music director or wish to volunteer for other areas of the organization, please contact Johnson at 946-1500 or go to the website www.curtainsuppagosa.org.

This story was posted on September 28, 2017.