C/O Kilyan Sockalingum (Unsplash)
With dramatic ups and downs, take an exclusive look into the rigorous process of student-produced musicals
McMaster Arts and Science Musical: “An Inquiry Line”
Waiting in anticipation to enter the interview that will determine if they speak for the voice of a generation as valedictorians, five arts and science students reflect on their time in the arts and science program. With elaborate choreography, each main character had a musical number that represented a throwback to their time within the program and conveyed their internal battles.
Loosely based on the well-known musical “The Chorus Line,” the annual arts and science musical “The Inquiry Line” took place at The Zoetic Theatre on March 18 and 19.
Elle Klassen is a fourth-year arts and science student casted to play the role of Jordan, a disenchanted arts and science student and one of the five potential valedictorian interviewees. Jordan’s song was a rendition of “Cell Block Tango” from the musical “Chicago,” where they sing of their perils within first-year arts and science courses.
“My character Jordan was intended to be the former gifted child archetype. They had a tough time balancing work and school as they came from a rural, low-income background. They are intended to be a little unpleasant and are irritated by people who had a lot of school spirit. Throughout the musical Jordan reconnects with art-sci to realize the value of their experiences within the program,” explained Klassen.
Given that auditions were held early October, the musical was an accumulation of almost five months of effort with cast members partaking in four-hour rehearsals on top of academic obligations every week. Two months before the performance dates, rehearsals comprised of the entire weekend.
To further immerse themselves in their role, Klassen and her castmates would contemplate the attributes they thought their characters would exhibit, such as what type of person the character would be and their visual aesthetics. This process aided in the main cast being able to learn their lines more naturally as they developed an increasing sense of the different intersections of the student experience that their characters were intended to portray.
“I didn’t even have to work on my lines that much outside of rehearsal because of how much initiative the main cast took to learn about their parts. While everybody was amazing and supportive, I thought the creative team could have taken more of a hands-on approach to show greater initiative,” said Klassen.
Boasting two directors, two vocal directors, two choreographers and one conductor, members of the musical team with experience in previous arts and science musicals found this production to be particularly well organized. This was especially evident during the notoriously hectic tech week, the week leading up to the musical.
“The dress rehearsals leading up to the show were extremely chaotic, but somehow everything always comes together by the performance day. I was so impressed by the backstage managers who managed to handle last minute issues that popped up with a lot of grace. The closing night was amazing,” said Klassen
Health Sciences Musical: “Healthsci Hears a WHO?”
The HSM is a fully student-run musical, written, produced and performed by students to raise funds for charity. This year the HSM geared its donations to the Black Health Sciences Bursary and the Arts for all Co.
Following along a theme of graduation and identity, the plot revolves around the entire graduating health sciences cohort being given a task whose only instructions are a single word: “Who?” The catch is everybody must pass this task in order to graduate and if there is even one individual who fails at the task then nobody graduates.
Yuna, one of the leading characters played by second-year health sciences student Sarah Baik struggles under the shadow of an overachieving brother as she attempts to change herself to fit in by trying her luck at popularity. Her character explores the themes of retaining friendships and sibling dynamics within the context of contemporary student experience. After an emotional fight with her seemingly perfect brother who is only trying to look out for his sister as she strays further from her authentic self, Baik’s character does her main vocal number to the tune of “Choose to Be Mine” from Waitress the Musical.
During the writing process, the entire team of over 80 people contributed towards finding melodies and lyrics that would best represent each character. Everyone voted on final song and lyrics selections and whichever one received the most was selected collectively.
Rehearsals took place for five hours every Sunday, with the first couple of hours being spent with the vocal directors learning the musical numbers, the middle hours spent with the choreographers and the last hours being used to run scenes from top to bottom. Shows were set to run at the Zoetic Theater and the team even arranged special public transport routes to safely allow audiences to attend and exit the performance.
“My experience in the role was super positive, we all learned and grew together. The team is super talented and there is a lot to learn from them. I got to meet a lot of people across the years which was something unique. Sometimes you have a test on Monday, but you have rehearsal on Sundays. It taught me a lot about time management which was good for learning self-discipline,” explained Baik.
Unfortunately, the HSM was cancelled on its opening night due to members of the team testing positive for COVID-19 just a few hours prior to performance.
Upon tensely deliberating on which direction to take following this turn of events with the venue for performances already booked and paying audiences at stake, the team made a decision to prioritize collective safety, even at the cost of months of their hard work.
“There were a lot of devastating emotions because it got cancelled. It didn’t hit me until an hour or so after I got the news. Everyone knew this was a possibility, but no one was prepared for it to happen. It was a tough decision because you felt like you let a lot of people down, not only the show organizers but also the audience. It was difficult but at least we had each other and got stronger,” said Baik.
Through it all, Baik and her cast mates praise the efforts of the production team who took the time to listen and validate the opinions of all cast members before deciding on a final decision to cancel the musical. The production team stayed strong for the rest of the team amidst the myriad of feelings about COVID-19 and the restrictions it brought forth.
“We all were depressed for a good few days after, processing the grief, but we are back and moving on knowing it was for the best. A lot of bonding came out of this as nobody understood our frustrations as well as the HSM team,” said Baik.
The HSM is now exploring other avenues to deliver its shows at later dates.
McMaster’s musical theatre community is opening the (virtual) curtains on its 2021 season
Following a musical theatre season that was cut short in 2020, McMaster University’s musical theatre community is back and looking forward to a 2021 season full of song, dance and fun-filled departmental productions.
“[Last year], our opening night was our last. It was the eve of school getting cancelled, so we got one show. Afterwards, having to see our cast’s heartbreak at the show being cancelled and seeing how sweet and supportive everyone was was really hard. The whole joy of theatre is getting to be in the space with people and building those relationships . . . it makes me feel good to think that we’re keeping things going, even if it’s not ideal,” said Gillian Maltz, a third-year arts and sciences student and the script supervisor for the ArtSci Musical.
The majority of faculty musicals have adopted an asynchronous viewing platform for their musicals, where the final show essentially is a Zoom window. The dialogue will be simulated by editing the cast’s individual videos together. The timing of dialogue became an issue online because, when recording from home, cast members don’t have each others’ cues to bounce off of for timing.
“[I]f you want to talk to somebody you pretend they’re on your right or your left. It’s the funniest thing ever when you’re filming and basically telling everyone “hey, can you look in that direction when you say something to them?” It’s obviously not something that we would tell them in person, but now [the cast] has to imagine that there are these people around them and they’re just in their bedrooms,” explained Khoi Hoang, a fourth-year chemical biology student and director of the MacSci Musical.
To rectify the problem, the Health Sciences Musical and McMaster Musical Theatre found a solution where they record dialogue while in a Zoom meeting with the cast. They would listen for each others’ cues through headphones, while simultaneously recording themselves on a separate device.
Music production is also a challenge in an online environment, given that cast and band members’ home audio quality is largely variable. In a band, musicians also face the issue of no longer having each others’ cues to work from.
“Speaking from a band perspective, usually you hear everyone playing together and hearing what other people are playing gives me a cue for where to come in . . . On Zoom, what we do is we split off into different sections based on our instruments, and then we'll record,” said Wendy Yu, a third-year health sciences student currently playing trombone in the Health Sciences musical band, as well as assisting their executive of promotions and events.
Another challenge that the departmental musicals are facing is learning and teaching choreography online.
“[I]t’s a lot harder to learn [choreography] over Zoom, especially because a lot of us sometimes struggle with internet connection as well. I’m one of those people, so learning these dances that are sometimes really intensive, while making sure you have enough space in your room and all this making sure the cast is in sync when we record it, has been an ongoing struggle,” said Zach Thorne, a fourth-year computer engineering and society student and assistant director for the Engineering musical.
Between the difficulties of learning choreography through the screen, constraints with space, internet connectivity issues and timing issues, choreographers have had to adapt to the barriers to teaching dance online.
“For me, the biggest challenge was definitely following and learning the choreography and all the dances. [Our choreographers] did literally the best job choreographers could do online, by providing us with a guide video for basically every song,” said Felix Hu, a first-year health sciences student and cast member in the Health Sciences musical.
Given that musicals will no longer be showing in person, crew and backstage contributors have had to take a backseat this year. Where lighting, props and set design once played an essential role in musical production, McMaster musicals have had to become creative in their approach to incorporating the crew.
“We were concerned about how to incorporate crew because normally crew works all semester to make a ton of cool props . . . We have some physical props, which I actually drove all around Hamilton and the GTA to pick up and drop off at cast members’ homes. Then, we're also taking advantage of Zoom and making digital backgrounds so that people can have digital backgrounds on Zoom,” explained Maeve Johnston, director of the Engineering musical.
A brand new component of creating online musical productions is video and sound editing. The student-produced musicals have had to navigate the technical barriers of camera setups, different recording environments and video and sound quality.
The online sphere has also provided the opportunity for musical theatre to not only adapt to producing a musical online but also to reinvent what it means to put on a show. McMaster Musical Theatre and the ArtSci Musical took brand new approaches to musical theatre production.
This year’s McMaster Musical Theatre showcase entitled Reimagining Musical Theatre aims to address the musical theatre industry’s history of excluding Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, 2LGBTQIA+ and disabled voices.
“The idea was to really interrogate and question the ways in which specific marginalized communities have been left out of Broadway musicals and theatre spaces. Find a way to look at musicals we know and love and question: can we reshape this to be more inclusive for different audiences who have not been able to access the stage in the same way as cisgender white people who are currently on Broadway?” explained Khaleel Gandhi, the McMaster Musical Theatre president and fourth-year theatre, film and multimedia studies student.
The showcase will consist of a number of classical Broadway songs, reimagined through McMaster Musical Theatre’s lens. For example, one of the showcase pieces will be presented entirely in sign language.
The ArtSci Musical took a completely different approach, instead deciding to focus on creating a radio drama series and a fringe show. The radio series, entitled Storytime, is currently on Spotify and Apple Music. ArtSci students submitted stories and concepts that are told by a narrator and a few student voice actors.
The fringe show, which has the theme An Artistic Exploration of the Meaning of Home, will be a collection of scenes, dance, music, song and poetry connected through narration. The show is student-produced with an original script and entirely original music.
“I think the goal is partly to produce something that is somewhat similar to a musical, but it's more so to keep the spirit of the musical alive and also to foster some kind of environment similar to a theatrical environment for the community,” said Chloe Sloane, a second-year arts & sciences student and co-director of the ArtSci Musical.
With the disconnect that students so often feel when distanced due to online learning, Mac’s musical theatre families have found connection and community in their shared love of the performing arts. Current first-year students have gotten a chance to get involved from last summer, providing an avenue to meet others and engage with the post-secondary community.
“The sense of community is really valuable . . . I really do appreciate everything people give not only in terms of the creativity and the participation but also just being themselves and the fun stories that came out as a result,” said Sean Lyeo, a fourth-year health sciences student and script supervisor for the Health Sciences Musical.
Currently, the MacSci Musical is available for streaming online for $14, where all profits are in support of the Aboriginal Health Centre. The Health Sciences Musical hopes to release their productions in late spring, while the Engineering Musical plans to release their musical as an episodic series in September. The McMaster Musical and ArtSci Musical teams are still planning when to release their final products.