Karen Bail, who helped Gibbs kids get to Broadway, retires

A beloved teacher of musical theater bows out after 17 years at Gibbs High School.
Published May 26 2017
Updated May 27 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — When neatnicks retire, they leave no trace behind. Their desks are clean, like a runway after the plane has taken off.

On Thursday, her last day of classes, Karen Bail's desk still looked like the airport. Fake flowers stood in vases next to coffee cups and papers. On a bulletin board, posters of musicals she's directed at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High maintained prominence, as if announcing next weekend's production.

Bail, 65, is moving on after 17 years at Gibbs, where she taught musical theater. More than two dozen former students have gone on to careers on Broadway, or prestigious theaters and tours.

"I have said that Karen Bail's work in putting us on the map, building bridges to the arts in colleges and universities, is second to none," said Michael Vasallo, Gibbs' assistant principal. Dustin Hinzman, Clearwater High's choral coach, becomes new musical theater teacher in the fall.

Former students have been sending good will.

"I imagine for any kid devoid of a cheerleader at home, Karen provided them that," said Blaine Alden Krauss, a 2010 graduate. "And in the gruesome years that we call high school, where we are judging our bodies and then daring on top of that to be actors who expose their hearts, a cheerleader in Karen was a savior we didn't know we needed."

Krauss is now an understudy in one of Broadway's hottest shows, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. When he got a chance to step into the principal role of Anatole in February, Bail was in the audience.

• • •

In Thursday's music theory class, a cluster of sophomores completed exams or just hung out, trying out dance improvisations or tinkering on the piano.

Bail opened her tablet to play a video some former students created for PCCA's commencement.

"Guys? Shhhhhh," Bail said. A circle of students lowered their voices.

On the screen, St. Petersburg native Jermaine Robinson was paying his teacher a compliment.

"You will bicker and complain," he said, "But you will still do whatever it is for us because you always have our best interest at heart."

Anthony Murphy wore a white costume in his tribute, in celebration of his recently won gig as the Genie in the first national tour of Aladdin.

Bail often plans vacations around her former students. She braved a snowstorm to watch Robinson perform in Chicago, then saw another student's performance in New York.

Her proteges have high standards and sometimes wait until a couple of weeks before opening night to let her know they're in a show.

"I always tell them, 'I need a cheap plane ticket, so I need to know in advance,' " Bail said.

Student Ephraim Sykes was part of the original cast of Hamilton and recently appeared in NBC's Hairspray Live. His sister, Martina Sykes, just finished a tour of Motown: The Musical. Lisa Finegold, class of 2007, now works as the dance captain on the national tour of Wicked. And Michelle Dowdy, class of 2005, might still hold the record for the most memorable commencement — by announcing she had just been cast as understudy to the lead on Broadway's Hairspray.

"It's so difficult that I'm happy if they get a job anywhere performing," Bail said. "I always tell them, there are so many theaters across the country. Don't think of New York as the place, because it's so expensive to live there."

Some of her visits have come at just the right time. After leaving the comfort of PCCA for Southern Methodist University, Rosharra Francis hit an emotional wall when Bail flew to Dallas for one of her shows.

"I was down about things," said Francis, 28, who sings The Loco-Motion as Little Eva in the national tour of Beautiful — the Carole King Musical. "I was feeling like, 'Can I do this?' She said to me, 'You can do anything you put your mind to.' And it was not a cliche."

She has also helped students find scholarships they didn't know existed.

"She became my most trusted mentor," said John Bamberry, 30. "And when it came time to apply for colleges, not only was she helpful in preparing for entrance auditions but even more importantly in finding the funds to attend."

Just last week, Bambery finished his master's degree at the Juilliard School.

• • •

Born Karen Lundgren in Minneapolis, Bail once seemed destined for a stage career. She earned degrees studying classical voice at the elite University of Michigan. For a while, plans percolated about working professionally in plays and musicals. But something stood in her way.

"It was afraid," she said. "I don't know why. It was just a fear."

She married an engineer and had two sons. In 1988, Bail followed her husband's job at Honeywell to Pinellas County and started teaching at Osceola High. The marriage would end in divorce. She stayed six years at Osceola, spending another six at the John Hopkins arts magnet. She performed in community theater and the occasional professional role. After joining Gibbs in 2000, any spare time she had left disappeared.

In 2009, Glee debuted on Fox, about irrepressible high school kids with big-league talent.

"When Glee came out, all of a sudden music theater got a big shot in the arm," Bail said. Fine arts degrees at colleges also became more competitive. There are financial realities to navigate. College costs a lot, and even scholarships rarely cover everything.

"The students that I know that are the most successful trying to have a career have parents who are covering a lot of bills for them," Bail said.

Then there's the biggest hurdle of all — the self-doubt she had faced years ago.

"I tell them if it is your passion, you need to try," Bail said. "Failing to try is the failure."

Between all the farewells, current students are now hitting up Bail with a new kind of greeting — friend requests on Facebook. In music theory class, students lined up for hugs as the minutes ticked toward noon.

"I'm scared about next year," said Isabelle Jotch, 16.

Bail planned to dump all the bric-a-brac from her office into white garbage bags and load them into her Nissan Maxima. She'd take the show posters but leave the signed photo of Pavarotti.

In two weeks, she'll have a knee replacement. She'll teach voice privately and maybe get back into community theater.

Bail will continue traveling to her former students' performances, but she'll ask them for a favor now. To sleep on their couches.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.