GUEST BLOG: “Producing the Digital Musical: Live Theatre in the Age of Quarantine”
TheaterMakers are the MacGyvers of the Arts.
We’ll make art with whatever we have. We can turn a barn into a theater, some newspaper into a dress . . . and yep, a pandemic into an opportunity.
And that’s exactly what the resourceful Student TheaterMakers at Northwestern did.
Faced with a possible cancellation of their traditional spring production, which has been going on for almost 100 years, they found another way to do it . . . through Zoom.
But, as you’ll see below, this wasn’t your typical Zoom production. It featured live singing, “entrances and exits,” scenic backdrops, and over 500 people in their audience from around the world.
It is one of the best virtual productions I’ve seen. And it was done by students.
That’s why I asked them to write this guest blog about their process, best practices, and their outcome.
What outcome I know is for sure . . . these kids are going to make some great stuff over the next few decades, on actual and virtual stages.
Take it away!
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Like any producers debuting a new show to a public audience for the first time, we were having quite a busy week leading up to March 13th.
The Waa-Mu Show, the organization we lead, was gearing up for a final reading of our new musical, State of the Art, for our faculty mentors and our student writing team. But after our university issued guidance to suspend all gatherings of over 50 people, we decided an hour before the reading not only that it was our ethical responsibility as producers to cancel the reading, but that our show, slated to open in May, was going to look a lot different than we had originally envisioned.
The Waa-Mu Show is Northwestern University’s oldest theatrical tradition, which began in 1929 as a student-written musical revue. In recent years, Waa-Mu has transitioned to an original book musical, which is written, produced, orchestrated, and performed by a team of over 150 students each year. Until now, The Waa-Mu Show had only ever been disrupted by World War II. And so, as the world was rapidly changing in the face of the coronavirus, we weren’t ready to abandon our show, which had been in development since spring of 2019.
While it quickly became clear that an in-person performance would not be possible — Broadway and the West End had just gone dark — we knew that we could preserve the mission of our process-oriented organization by continuing to develop our draft. Initially, we didn’t set out to do an online performance, but held virtual rehearsals to workshop material with the cast, writers, and music team. It wasn’t until a few weeks into this process that we realized the show was actually turning out better than we expected — so we decided to do a final reading of the show for a select audience on May 1st, our original opening date.
Creating and performing a new musical each year is already a monumental task and is all the more difficult when our collaborators cannot be in the same physical space. The most pressing challenge was figuring out how to sing over Zoom. While our music directors taught the cast their parts, our orchestrators and arrangers developed tracks over which the actors could sing live. For group numbers, where singing simultaneously would have been impossible, actors recorded all of their parts to click tracks and our music team stitched the actors’ parts together using some technical magic in Logic and Finale into one final recording.
As we worked through our virtual rehearsals, we discovered other online analogs for the in-person elements of a staged show. For example, actors’ entrances and exits were replaced with turning one’s video on and off, which removed the actors’ profiles from the screen. We also took advantage of Zoom’s “breakout room” feature to allow multiple rehearsals to happen at once — our director Amanda Tanguay might have been doing scene work in the main room, while actors learned vocal parts in a second room, our writing team made edits in a third room, as us producers discussed logistics in a fourth.
In addition to figuring out the technical aspects of a virtual musical, it was also important for us as the leadership to be aware of the time we’re living in and the toll it can take on mental health. While we remained committed to making this show happen, we understood if team members had to take a step back from the process.
It was also essential to embrace the limitations of this new medium, which allowed us to make all sorts of new discoveries. For example, as a new work process, the virtual format freed us from the budgetary or work time constraints of the physical elements of the show, which allowed us to make bigger story edits later in the rehearsal timeline. Normally, you can’t make changes that would affect your set during tech week, but without a set, we could make edits that were in the best interest of the story at any time.
Another added surprise of the virtual performance was the sense of community we still felt. In the end, a combined audience of about 500 friends, family, alumni, mentors, industry insiders, and students from as far as the Netherlands and New Zealand tuned into a first-of-its-kind virtual presentation of an original musical. As soon as the show ended, our inboxes were buzzing nonstop from viewers who were so thrilled at the way the show came together.
Ultimately, while our virtual reading was certainly not the performance we anticipated, we are so proud of the work we created and what we learned along the way. We hope our production can serve as a model and a resource for the wider theatre community as we enter into a new era of online theatre-making. Our gratitude is forever with our passionate and resilient team, who were able to look a worldwide pandemic in the face and decide that art is still worth making.
Written by: Emma Griffone, Leo Jared Scheck, Jon Toussaint, and Olivia Worley
Producers of State of the Art and Co-Chairs of The Waa-Mu Show
And now you can watch State of the Art!
Emma Griffone studies Theatre and Literature at Northwestern University. Favorite performance credits include FUN HOME, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and RAGTIME. She has been an orchestrator and arranger for several Northwestern productions, including COMPANY and GUYS AND DOLLS. Management credits include STATE OF THE ART, where she served as co-producer.
Leo Jared Scheck studied Theatre and Economics at Northwestern University, where he produced sold-out runs of DRY LAND and 13 THE MUSICAL. Other management credits include HELLO, DOLLY!, NEXT TO NORMAL, 9 TO 5, and STATE OF THE ART. He previously interned for HAMILTON on the Marketing and Communications team. www.leoscheck.com.
Jon Toussaint studies Theatre, French, and Psychology at Northwestern University. In addition to being a co-chair of the 89th Annual Waa-Mu Show and co-producer of STATE OF THE ART, Jon is an actor, director, and choreographer, most recently having directed Northwestern’s largest student-produced musical of the year (SPAMALOT).
Olivia Worley studied Theatre and Business Institutions at Northwestern University. Favorite performance credits include URINETOWN, CARRIE, SPELLING BEE, and LEGALLY BLONDE. As a playwright, she has written two full-length plays performed at Northwestern. Co-Producing credits include INTO THE WOODS, STEP ON A CRACK, and STATE OF THE ART. www.oliviaworley.com.
P.S. Tonight, we’re LIVE with James Snyder (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, If/Then, Cry-Baby). Swing by at 8pm EDT to find out what he’s been up to since the Broadway shutdown affected what was about to be Year 3 of Harry Potter and Cursed Child. Click here to set your reminder on Facebook. Or click here to watch on Youtube.