This Song Is N-N-Not About You

carly simon getty This Song Is N N Not About YouOn the evening of Monday, April 19, Carly Simon stood backstage at N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, surrounded by a scrum of excited kids, a dozen celebrity actors and singers and Taro Alexander—the ebullient founder of Our Time, a nine-year-old theater company composed of the aforementioned children, all of whom, like Mr. Alexander and Ms. Simon (and this writer), stutter.

“Hold on!” Mr. Alexander called out, ushering Ms. Simon in front of a gaggle of photographers in the green room. He wore a blue-pinstriped suit, and his shaved head was just beginning to bob to the beat of a drum somewhere in the room. Behind him hung a curtain stamped with dozens of Our Time logos, a decoration that has Mr. Alexander giddy. “I need a picture! All right: Don’t let your stuttering hold you back. Cheese.”

The gala that night was meant to honor Ms. Simon, as well as to raise a few hundred thousand dollars for Our Time, a not-for-profit that consists of free weekly workshops and a summer camp. From a corner, the drum grew louder, and soon the whole room was hopping and clapping as Mr. Alexander swiveled away from the cameras and began to lead what is known to all the kids as a “Hype,” or chant:

“When I say Our Time,” he shouted to the crowd, “You say ‘bout time’! Our Time!”

“Bout Time!”

“Our Time!”

“Bout Time!”

This went on for 20 minutes or so, which might have been wearisome had not a 12-year-old usurped Mr. Alexander and ventured his own rendition. (“When I say Our Time, you say ‘Carly!’) No one stuttered, except for Nick Viagas, a 15-year-old who’s been a member of Our Time for four years and was towering next to me against a wall, looking at Edie Falco, Paul Rudd, Lauren Ambrose, Michael Cerveris—all these stars huddled together across the way: “M-my first year, we had s-s-someone I’d never heard of. Like f-from the M-Mod Squad or something. We’re moving up.”

BY A CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATE, about 100,000 children in New York City—about 1 in 20—endure a stutter.

Ms. Simon climbed down out of a cherry tree one summer in Riverdale and discovered hers. It was opening night for a production of Little Women, in which she was performing with some friends. In front of the audience (and, weirdly, James Thurber, who had chronicled the purported cures of New York stuttering salons in The New Yorker some decades before), she couldn’t recite her lines. She puckered and stammered her consonants and went home crying to her mother. Ever after, her halting speech has had a paradoxical relationship to her life and career: It’s as steadfast and constant as anyone’s accent, but a minor blip on her biography. “Because of my speech, I’m a very good listener,” she said, earlier in the night. “I go past the spoken voice to body language, expressive eye contact.” She stopped acting.

So did Mr. Alexander, who moved to New York at 19 to pursue a stage career. Though he has stuttered since he was 5 years old, he was oddly fluent onstage. This is true for other stutterers, and particularly those who sing—the brain has one pathway for spontaneous speech, where some neurologists believe the verbal stumble originates, and another for recitation, the memory of rhythm. But while doing a regional play in Colorado, Mr. Alexander hit a block onstage and was similarly devastated.

“I spent most of my life trying to hide it, and avoided other people who stutter because I had a really negative image of myself as a stutterer and anyone else who had one,” he told The Observer. He returned to New York and got a gig with STOMP!, the show that replaces words with banging trash cans; there he met Everett Bradley, Our Time’s eventual musical director.

Mr. Alexander founded Our Time in 2001: “It’s about confidence and providing an environment where someone can realize that what they have to say is important and that their voice is valuable.”