SOPHIE SALVESON: How One Very Remarkable Young Woman Has Become 'Nashville's Daughter'

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On Thursday, March 1, Sophia Salveson-at 19, a college student (at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and an aspiring actress-suffered a massive stroke that left her with little to no movement on the right side of her body and major damage to the speech and comprehension center of her brain. Taking her family and friends completely unawares, Salveson's sudden and unexpected medical dilemma sent feelings of shock, dismay and disbelief throughout the country, with its reverberations felt most resoundingly in her hometown of Nashville, where word quickly spread around town and among members of the city's music and theater communities that she had been stricken.

There were no physical signs to indicate she was prone to stroke or indeed that one was impending. She was the very picture of good health and youthful vigor, with a heart as big as the universe, to hear those people who love her so much talk about her and to respond to her life situation now.

"It was so shocking to hear this news at first," recalls Daron Bruce, who had been both mentor and teacher to "Sophie" at Hume-Fogg Academic High School. "Former students began calling and texting, wanting to know the details. When I finally got confirmation of her situation, Lisa Forbis (Hume-Fogg choral teacher) and I broke the news to the show choir. After we told them of Sophie's situation, there was a silence and a stillness in the room that is inexplicable. Lisa and I walked into her office and the students still could not speak or move. They just sat there, trying to process what just happened to someone they loved so much."

"Someone they love so much…" is a phrase that you hear over and over as you speak to people about Sophie Salveson and her family-mother Marabeth Quin (and her husband Casey) and father Paul Savleson (and his wife Angela)-who in the aftermath of that one life-altering, earth-shattering afternoon in March have come to realize that now, even more so than ever before, their darling daughter Sophie belongs to a family much bigger than themselves. As her recovery continues, Sophie Salveson has, quite easily and most definitely, become Nashville's daughter.

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"We have known Sophie and her parents Marabeth Quin and Paul Salveson for almost 25 years," explains Mike Eldred, the singer/actor and Broadway veteran, who will be among the performers at next Monday night's Sophie Shines! benefit concert at 3rd and Lindsley (the June 25th event is headlined by Amy Grant and Vince Gill, and Melinda Doolittle, Mandisa, Tim Akers & The Smoking Section, Larry Carlton, Etta Britt, Chris Rodriguez, Annie Sellick and Pat Bergeson, Michael Londra and Lisa Cochran are among the performers joining Eldred onstage), one of Music City's best-known performance venues.

"Tom [Patterson, Eldred's husband] and I were both in the hospital standing by the door when Sophie was born 19 years ago. Marabeth and Paul worked with me on my very first album in 1988-Paul as an engineer and Marabeth as a singer. I have spent countless hours in the studio over the years with them both. Lifetime friends! We have been through so much together over the years."

But nothing that all the Eldreds, Pattersons, Salvesons and Quins had shared over the past quarter century could have prepared them for life after March 1: "I have never in my life seen such a positive approach to moving through a crisis as I have with the Salveson/Quin family," Eldred says, wonder in his voice. "They all decided from moment one that there was no time to worry…only press on. It's been inspiring to watch, to say the least."

After 16 days at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and some 30 days at a rehabilitation center in the Chicago area, Sophie was brought home to Nashville by her parents (aboard a big touring bus provided by friends in the Nashville music industry, who throughout contemporary times have always gathered around their coworkers, associates, friends and family to provide support in such trying times). Just two weeks ago, she underwent surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to replace the left side of her skull and her miraculous, if slow and painstaking, recovery continues. Her mother writes a blog (at www.sophiasalveson.com) in which she tells of the realities of this new and unexpected journey for her family.

According to Daron Bruce, as news of Sophie's stroke spread throughout the community, it became apparent that everyone felt a need to show their love and support in a more tangible way.

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"Since she was in a hospital in Chicago, there wasn't much we could do for Sophie and her family. Since we were about to open our spring production, The Curious Savage, we decided to ask for donations after the show to help with medical costs. The cast went into the audience after the performances and collected money to give to Sophie and her family," he says. "The entire Hume-Fogg student body also organized a fundraiser for Sophie one week in March. Each morning, we played recordings of Sophie singing and then asked for donations in first period classes. I also organized selling blue 'Team Sophie' wristbands to help with her expenses."

With the help of representatives of Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong organization, Bruce said he was pointed in the right direction to get the wristbands ready to distribute to the public in a timely manner. Yet the receipts from sales of the wristbands are likely to be but a drop in the bucket of the expenses to be met during Sophie's recovery. "I can't even imagine the expenses that her family will have for her full recovery," Bruce says.

In the spirit of family and togetherness that exemplifies the music industry and the theater community in Nashville, the Sophie Shines! concert will give individuals a chance to show Sophie and her family some love.

"This fundraising event has reunited old friends and coworkers from all walks of life and belief systems," Eldred says. "Where some of the people involved have been at odds for decades now, the sense of need has mended broken relationships. Sophie has no idea what a light she is to so many around her right now. Everyone involved in Sophie Shines! has been inspired by the unrelenting optimism and courage of Sophie and her family. We have all been forever changed in our own lives, no question."

"I will be performing!" Eldred exclaims. "Because Tim Akers and the Smoking Section is an amazing funk band, several of us will be pushed out of our normal genres to tackle the great songs of Tower of Power, Average White Band, Stevie Wonder, etc. Imagine Vince Gill singing Stevie! I, for one, can't wait."

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For Shelean Newman, one of Nashville theater's best-known names who has gained a following from throughout the USA thanks to her live performances and critically acclaimed recordings, Sophie Salveson is like a member of her own family and the impact of her medical condition has greatly affected her household. As a result, the community's response to the needs of Sophie and her family is not unexpected.

"Sophie and her family are some of our closest friends. She and Seth [the son of Newman and her husband Barry Green] are the same sage and our daughter Tyler and her brother Jordan are the same age. We became friends when Sophie and Seth were about seven-years-old. They've all grown up together," she explains. "To anyone who knows Sophie, it's no surprise that the community has responded with such passion. She is beautiful, incredibly talented, intelligent, witty and one of the most gentle spirits I know.

"Sophie's family is equally remarkable. The community is responding to all of them as well. It makes sense that we shower them with support. That's just what you do for those you love. The way they have chosen to handle the crisis is one of the most inspirational experiences I've gone through in my life. How something potentially so devastating can be so beautiful and positive is nothing short of magical. It's intoxicating to be with them.

"I am a better person for knowing them and having them in my family," Newman maintains.

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Like Eldred, Newman and Bruce, singer/actress Bonnie Keen is a longtime friends of the Salvesons and Quins. "I had the great honor of recording and touring with Marabeth Quin for several years with the trio First Call," she remembers. "I held Sophie as a baby and have watched with growing admiration as she's come into her own as a massively talented singer and actress. The impact of her stroke has brought together so many groups of people in the local theater community, recording industry and beyond."

"Sophie," Keen explains, "is teaching us all a new story, and I believe one day she will sing with even more passion than before. Her parents, Paul and Marabeth are tremendous talents in their own right. She comes from a brave heritage of fighters. It's my ongoing honor to be one person in the chorus of many loving each new phase of healing in Sophie's life."

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Holly Shepherd, a noted actress/singer/director/choreographer who calls Nashville home, first met Sophie Salveson when she cast her in her first show-Annie, naturally-in which she played, as Shepherd recalls, "a speaking orphan."

"Sophie came into my life through one of my best friends, Mark Ivey. Mark, in turn, is one of Marabeth's best friends…so we were hanging out together often when Sophie was about ten or 11 and I cast her in her first show. She was a natural and never stopped performing."

"Ironically, the last time I saw her was last summer when she came to see Annie [at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, where Shepherd was cast as Miss Hannigan]," she explains. "Marabeth and Sophie came over to the hospital when I had Daisy. When Sophie was cast as Belle in Beauty and The Beast at Hume-Fogg, she came over to our house the next weekend. Daisy was rendered speechless when she found out that 'Belle' was in our house!"

Regardless of her current medical status, it's obvious that Sophie Salveson would always be on the mind-and in the big heart-of her former teacher Daron Bruce. Just listening to him talk about her, it's easy to see she has always been something, someone, very special to the veteran educator.

"Sophie was the 'dream student' any teacher would love to have in high school," he says. "She has a beautiful spirit that is contagious to everyone she meets. I honestly can't ever remember a time that she didn't walk into a rehearsal with a huge smile on her face. She definitely has the 'it' factor while performing. From playing Liesl in The Sound of Music to Eponine in Les Miserables, she commands the stage like a professional. Probably her most memorable role was Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Many of my actor/director friends felt she could rival any of the Belles on Broadway."

Sophie's impact on those around her easily extends beyond the footlights, Bruce contends: "She is such a great role model as well. A true professional, she was always prepared for rehearsals and at performance level energy from the first rehearsal. With all of these wonderful roles she played, you might think she would be a diva. But no, she is the furthest thing from a diva."

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Emphatically, Eldred concurs with Bruce. "I met with Sophie and her mom last year to discuss her questions about the possibilities of a musical theatre career," he says. "She is brilliant and honest in her outlook on life. Her talent is astounding and she can have whatever she sets her mind to in life. I still believe this is true. Everyone who knows her believes that she will have a full life, even with this setback."

"When Sophie returned to Nashville, I waited a few weeks to visit her," Bruce says. "To be honest, I was really nervous to see her-not knowing what she would look like or if she would seem different. So just a few weeks ago, Lisa Forbis and I paid a visit to her. What a wonderful surprise when we walk in! There she sat, smiling that beautiful smile! It was wonderful to visit and laugh with her. Her beauty and spirit are just as vibrant as ever."

Daron Bruce will be at Monday night's Sophie Shines! concert ("I hope that we sell every ticket," says Shelean Newman), selling the blue  'Team Sophie' armbands that have become an outward symbol of support for the extended Salveson/Quin families. For further information about Sophie Shines! (general admission tickets are $35; VIP tickets, priced at $125, have sold out), go to http://www.sophieshines.com/.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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