Growing up in North Jersey decades ago, Tom Weaver considered himself “a jock.” He played varsity football for Paramus High School, was the catcher on the baseball team, and planned to become a physical education teacher.
But when he saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway as a high school senior in 1971, he found himself swept into the magic of theater.
“I wish there was a way I could do this kind of stuff for a living,” he recalls saying to his then-girlfriend after the show.
He got his wish. Weaver became a drama teacher and later theater director at Cherry Hill High School East, where he spent a career staging musicals and teaching English. This month, after 42 years in that dream job, Weaver, 65, will celebrate his retirement with a final production: Fiddler on the Roof, a musical he first saw on Broadway as a high school student.
The student performance will be a scaled-down production, with a crew of about 100 students and a budget that of course can’t compete with the grandeur of Broadway. But that’s not to say it’s not elaborate. His interpretation of the musical involves high-wire rig systems during a dream sequence and the cast performing in the aisles.
It will be a proud moment, and a fitting swan song for a man who has spent a career bringing stories to life on the stage.
Standing in the back of the filled 1,100-seat theater at Cherry Hill East at a performance last weekend, Weaver thought back to seeing Fiddler for the first time and watched it unfold anew — this time with his high school students on the stage.
At the close of the play, after the main character, Tevye, says his last goodbyes after he and his family are exiled from the only village they have ever known as home, the audience gave a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes. In true Tom Weaver fashion, he made sure the spotlight was on his cast and crew.
At Cherry Hill East, Weaver has directed plays including The Tempest and It’s a Wonderful Life, and received national honors for the department’s production of Ragtime from Music Theatre International in 2017. He has mentored students who went on to prominent positions in the entertainment industry.
“My freshman year of high school, I sat with about 20 other students looking at the smiling and inviting face of the man who was to lead this class and who, unbeknownst to me, would become an inspiration for me to fulfill a yet unknown dream. That first day changed the trajectory of my life forever, and that man was Tom Weaver,” said James Barbour, a Cherry Hill East student who later went on to star on Broadway in productions such as The Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast.
“I still remember the lesson he taught that first day, of how acting was about living and feeling the truth of the characters, the truth of life onstage. He taught me not only the art of acting but also the art of stagecraft. The four years I spent in his company truly became the rock for years to come,” Barbour said in a statement.
Before becoming the award-winning theater director he is today, however, Weaver had his heart set on a different course.
He was at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) studying to become a physical education teacher when his professor in an elective theater course told him he could teach theater for a living. It took Weaver “all of about five seconds” to switch majors.
He graduated with a degree in speech and theater in 1976. After receiving his English teaching certification a year later, Weaver became the protege of Bob Nation, the theater director at Cherry Hill East. Weaver took over as director in 2008.
Nation "really developed this program in the late ’60s, early ’70s,” he said. “He was the type of director who liked to take a $5 million Broadway set and build it for $5,000.”
The set Weaver created for a production of Titanic in 2006 featured a three-story ship that supported 2,000 pounds. Throughout the show, it gradually tipped sideways, up to seven feet in the air, as the ship sank.
Nearly 200 productions later, Weaver will be handing the director’s role to Pete Gambino, an English teacher and drama department member.
“One of the things that’s cool about this school is that there really is a sense of tradition,” Gambino said. “I think that’s really important to him. He’s passing on that tradition in the sense of camaraderie and teamwork.”
Weaver’s approach to teaching is one he calls “educational theater” — a way for students to learn responsibility, time management, confidence, and teamwork through theater production. When Weaver noticed that underclassmen weren’t getting enough experience acting and producing, he started the lab theater program to give them the chance to produce an annual show.
Elisabeth R. Finch, now a writer and co-executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy, was a student of Weaver’s in the mid-'90s, where she wrote one-act plays for the lab theater program. She graduated in 1996 and went on to write for HBO’s True Blood and the CW’s The Vampire Diaries.
“There are three teachers who have helped me get to where I am today,” Finch said. “'Weav' is one of those teachers.”
Finch remembered watching Magnum, P.I. (the Tom Selleck version) and discussing the show and sharing thoughts on theater and playwriting over Diet Cokes with Weaver in high school. To this day, she said, she and her friends from high school talk about “the kindness, heart and dedication of Weaver” as displayed while educating students.
At Cherry Hill East, there are two sets of casts for every show, a Red and a White cast, named after the school’s colors. This means Weaver makes sure actors, costumes, sets, and choreography are ready for two casts for separate shows.
“I think he’s everything,” said Kevin Naddeo, 18, a senior at Cherry Hill East, who plays Tevye in the White cast and plans to pursue an acting career. “He’s our director, he is our teacher. We talk to him like he’s a friend, and we go to him with issues that we face."
“I think the most important thing he’s always taught me is, on and off stage, just be myself,” said senior Jack Granite, 18, the Tevye of the Red cast. “I don’t need to be different for anybody else. I’m happy with who I am.”
Granite says Weaver is “the glue that keeps the department together,” whether it be directing, set design, lighting, or education.
In June, when he retires, Weaver said he plans to spend more time with his family and grandchildren. He also hopes to focus on playwriting and is considering a one-act play in which Benjamin Franklin meets William Shakespeare.
As the curtains close on Sunday for the final performance of Fiddler, the theater department will officially honor the career of Tom Weaver.
“The kids are the number-one priority, and that’s where the joy comes from," Weaver said of the excitement and satisfaction of a live performance. “They’re crying, they’re laughing. They feel like a million dollars. When that happens, I feel like 10 million dollars.”