What does it take to produce an online musical?
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.