How music and a hug can change a life in ’20 Seconds’ at NYC’s Pershing Square Signature Center

Did you know that the power of music and a long hug can change a life? Music therapist, writer, composer, and actor Thomas Sweitzer does, and he tells us that and a whole lot more in his autobiographical solo play with music, 20 Seconds, now making its NYC debut in a limited engagement at Pershing Square Signature Center. Written and performed by Sweitzer, directed and developed by Jeremy Scott Blaustein, the award-winning work (Best Solo Performance at the 2022 Capital Fringe Festival) takes us on a harrowing, and ultimately uplifting, personal journey from his turbulent childhood to his dedication to helping others as co-founder, creative director, and head of music therapy at A Place to Be (a non-profit organization offering music therapy and expressive arts services in Northern Virginia).

Thomas Sweitzer. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

A thoroughly engaging, personable, and masterful storyteller, Sweitzer combines intimate direct-address reflections with re-enactments of the most impactful memories from his past, interspersed with traditional and original segments of music and song, as he portrays, in 26 scenes, both his younger and older self, and a dozen other characters who played a significant role in his life – including the voice-over of a funny foul-mouthed parrot, the mean boys at school who bullied and taunted him as a “fat faggot,” the woman he invented and embodied, and most notably, his unhealthy and damaged parents.

He openly shares growing up in the working-class town of Altoona, PA, in the 1970s, with his loving overweight diabetic mother, who suffered a series of heart attacks, served her husky son unhealthy fatty food, thought home-made meatballs were the cure for everything, and suffered the constant rage and abuse of his alcoholic, illiterate, paranoid-schizophrenic father, all witnessed and experienced by Tom as a boy.

Thomas Sweitzer. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. One day, to escape the brutality at home, he ran to the church across the street, where he was greeted by the compassionate and welcoming Sunday school teacher Erdean, who took him under her wing, taught him how to play the piano, imparted words of wisdom, and showed him the value of music, love, empathy, and forgiveness that would alter the course of his future, gain him acceptance into prestigious musical programs and schools, and, eventually, begin to heal his toxic relationship with his broken father.

Thomas Sweitzer. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Sweitzer does it all with seamless transitions from one figure to another, one format to another, one raw emotion to another (without ever becoming melodramatic or cloying), touching our hearts and engendering our caring in a show filled with humanity, as we root for him on his rocky road to becoming the benevolent person, and the impressive talent, he is today.

His deeply affecting and natural performance is supported by transporting sound effects by Bill Toles that are in perfect synch with Sweitzer’s story and movements, lighting by Jamie Roderick that accentuates his different moods, a set by Lindsay Fuori that captures the look and feel of a working-class home of the 1970s, and costumes and accessories by Emilee McVey-Lee that he easily changes with his fluid shifts of character.

Thomas Sweitzer. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Tom Sweitzer’s 20 Seconds is profoundly honest, heartrending, hopeful, and healing, designed to help others understand and forgive, survive and thrive, just as he did. In a post-performance message to the audience, he encourages us to offer support and an act of kindness to someone we know who needs it, reminding us that we, and music, can make a difference and change a troubled life for the better. I highly recommend that everyone see it – and do it. You can also watch him and learn about his mission in the 2020 documentary Music Got Me Here on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.

20 Seconds plays through Saturday, October 21, 2023, at Pershing Square Signature Center, the Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $40-125, plus fees), go online.

Before you go, you can listen to a short sample of the music here:


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