Cancer gave Bill Strauss, 57, an opportunity to reflect on his life’s work. That reflection "really focused me" to make his brainchild, the Critics and Awards Program for high school theatre (Cappies), a success.
In the past few years he has created a new musical, authored another book, performed on stage with the Capitol Steps and seen the Cappies, which he started to promote artistic achievements of young people, grow into a self-sustaining nationwide organization.
Strauss’ adult life has been centered on music and entertaining but it wasn’t always destined to be so. As a young man fresh out of law school and working for a firm in San Francisco his life changed from corporate bound to artist on a daydream.
“I looked out the window one day down onto the street and I saw motorcycle cops and street vendors and people out there and thought they had a lot more than I did,” Strauss said. “I just decided then to be a free spirit.”
HIS LATEST MUSICAL, "Anasazi," could be the culmination of that dream. Strauss looked at his life spiritually after being diagnosed a few years ago with pancreatic cancer. He is now battling liver cancer.
“I never could have written it if I didn’t have this disease. I didn’t have it in me to craft a musical on spiritual themes before then,” said Strauss.
Strauss has written three musicals to date; "Makiddo," "Free the Music.com" and "Anasazi."
Margie Johnson sang the lyrics of "Anasazi" for the musical's demo. “In 'Anasazi' I hear the voice of a Renaissance man. Out of intense adversity Bill conceived 'Anasazi' and it is evidence of his personal and creative Renaissance,” said Johnson.
“[Cancer] has sharpened his appreciation for everything that is good and true. It’s inspiring to see a musical that lifts you. In 'Anasazi' it’s something that inspires you from the first moment to the last,” said Johnson.
The demo CD of "Anasazi" will begin circulating to theaters that would be able to produce a musical of its scope within the next month.
“He’s [Strauss] extremely efficient. He really works at the speed of light,” said Johnson.
Strauss acknowledged, “I’ve taken hobbies and passions and things that compel me and I’ve done them.”
SERENDIPITY HAS touched Strauss’ career as well.
“My career in the arts came about oddly. The Capitol Steps began with a jam session in a loft above my bedroom after a party. It was the Christmas party that wouldn’t stop. It was fun back then. I would borrow or steal my kids' toys as props.”
Strauss, a 30-year resident of McLean, graduated from the Harvard School of Law and the Kennedy School of Government in 1973.
Today the Capitol Steps is a highly regarded organization known for biting political satire.
Strauss’ crowning achievement may be the Cappies and the legacy it will leave for future generations. “The Cappies coincides with this whole experience. I don’t think I would have had the same determination to make the Cappies successful. [The cancer] really did re-direct my priorities,” said Strauss.
“I want to help young people do well in the next level. I’d really like to see a lot of Cappies programs. I believe a lot in the Millennial generation. We want to help them find their cultural voice. We can do that by continuing to make [the Cappies] better and have more programs across the country,” said Strauss.
IN THE PAST FEW YEARS the Cappies has spread from one end of the country to the other under Strauss' direction and determination. According to Strauss’ daughter Victoria the impetus for the Cappies was a national tragedy.
“It was a personal response to the Columbine tragedy. He really wanted to show a positive side of kids,” said Victoria Strauss. There are now nine Cappies programs across the country in metropolitan areas. In addition to the National Capitol Cappies program, there are Cappies in Baltimore, Kansas City, Cincinnati, South Florida, Dallas, Springfield Missouri, Orange County, Ca, and El Paso.
“We’re all over the country literally. Each year we welcome more,” said Victoria Strauss.
Strauss laughs that launching the Cappies “was like trying to get a large airplane off the ground.” He adds, “When you get a cancer diagnosis there’s a lot for you to think about. I committed myself that I was going to make this work.”
“Right now the culture is way too celebrity-driven and corporate-driven. It’s built around the star system. Down the line, I’d like to see the pop culture be more democratized with a larger group that sings better. There’s a certain tiredness there now,” said Strauss of the cultural waters that teens swim in today.
“Some day, they will say he provided and paved the road for youth today because these people [in the Cappies] will be the people who achieve something,” said Victoria Strauss.
“I made a pact with myself that if I survived this, I’d make the Cappies a top priority,” said Strauss.
Strauss started the Cappies back in 1999. Since then it has grown into a respected organization that each year sees the student critics in the program serve as awards judges for Cappie nominations and awards. The awards are presented in grand style at the Cappies Gala that is held annually in prominent venues such as the Kennedy Center.
Strauss’ fight against cancer strengthened his resolve, according to those who know him.
“When he was diagnosed in 1999, that even furthered his goal of wanting to leave something to the community — locally and nationally,” said Victoria Strauss.
Strauss and co-author Neil Howe have written two books extolling the virtues of a generation that the media had written off. They took Generation Y, made it the Millennial Generation and highlighted the positive achievements of this group of young people.
“In the case of the Generation's writing, it’s been a major intellectual interest of mine. It’s inspired really by the intellectual aspects as well as the importance of having people think about the generational aspects. It encourages people to think well about young people,” said Strauss.
“He’s a rare combination. He’s uniquely gifted with insights and perspective. He’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. I’ve learned so much from him,” said Johnson.
STRAUSS CREDITS his family as being the support system that enables him to achieve success. “I’ve been very blessed with my life. I have a wonderful wife and four great kids. I’ve been able to follow my dreams,” said Strauss. He is married to Janie Strauss, member of the Fairfax County School Board. “She said she married me because life would always be interesting,” said Strauss.
The diagnosis of cancer has pushed Strauss to take advantage of every moment in order to see his goals realized. “He doesn’t complain,” said Johnson. “He has always floated above the adversity he’s experienced.”
“My outlook is good. I’m very fortunate to have an outstanding result. My physicians consider it manageable,” said Strauss. “From here I follow my ideas, make as much of a difference as I can for as many young people as possible, make beautiful musicals and make every day count,” said Strauss.
“He’s just hit his stride. He’s coming into his full potential right now,” said Johnson.