Making of a Musical

Fall production of Spring Awakening challenges student-actors.

One late night, shortly before Randolph’s fall musical Spring Awakening was set to open, a group of actors waited for feedback on a musical number they had just rehearsed. Mace Archer, a Randolph theatre professor and director, consulted with Randall Speer, a music professor providing musical direction.

After a short conversation, Archer announced that the group had strayed from the tempo, forcing Speer to change the speed of the music to compensate. “You can’t do that in a show,” Archer told them. “It’s an eight-piece band. They aren’t going to adjust the tempo to you.”

Just a few minutes later, the same student-actors rehearsed a different scene, this time portraying a group of boys sentenced to reformatory school. As they played crude games and berated the main character, Archer chided them for not acting cruel enough.

“These are different characters than you have most of the show,” he told the group. “I want you to think differently in terms of rhythm and in terms of quality of these people. These are tough guys. There’s a sense of morality that’s lacking. There’s a roughness to them. They’re ready to fight.

“The other characters you play are singers,” Archer added. “These guys are not singers.”

One of the reasons Archer chose Spring Awakening, a recently released hit rock ‘n’ roll musical, was the experience it would provide to student-actors. “In terms of training our students for the theatre, this is what the marketplace is demanding right now,” Archer said. “For students to make a living in either design or performance, they need to know how to work in musicals.”

Musicals allow performers to develop a wide skill set, including speaking, singing, dancing, and keeping rhythm. The process also provides more opportunities for students to learn about the technical aspects of musical productions, such as building extensive sets, balancing sound levels, and running complicated light cues.

During previous years, the College produced a musical every four years, said Ken Parks, a theatre professor and lighting designer. Then, each student would have the chance to be in one musical while in college. “That was a minimalist philosophy,” Parks said.

The addition of Archer, who has experience directing and performing in musicals, has allowed the department to produce a musical each academic year in addition to its other theatrical performances.

Marian van Noppen ’12, who held the lead female role of Wendla, said musicals require in-depth thinking about the material and applying skills acquired throughout the curriculum. “You have to interpret the songs as poetry; you have to analyze them like poetry and then be able to interpret the music, too,” she said.

The physical challenges of musicals also offer much-needed experience for actors. “In addition to all that work that you’re doing as an actor, you’re also doing a lot of work as a musician, and you’re also doing all that work as a dancer, and sometimes all three at once,” said Karl Speer ’12, who played Moritz, one of the lead male roles.

Musicals also provide advanced training to those participating behind the scenes. Like many of Randolph’s theatre participants, Matt Cornpropst ’14 managed multiple roles for the production. In addition to set design and building, he also performed two parts, which often required him to be on stage late in the evening rehearsing songs and dance numbers. He also served as the master electrician and had to learn how to program a new type of stage light system that helped create the rock ‘n’ roll setting for the musical.

“That’s something that’ll be really good to know because there are a lot of interesting technologies coming out for lighting,” Cornpropst said.

While Cornpropst wants to be a professional actor, he has realized the technical experiences he is gaining at Randolph will make him a well-rounded actor and provide him with a second career option.

“Also, actors who are clueless about tech things are less liked,” he said.

Adding more musicals to the College’s repertoire strengthens the overall theatre program for performers as well as audience members. In addition to Spring Awakening, WildCat Theatre produced Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in February and is performing Extremeties, a play by William Matrosimone, in April.

“Larger universities might put on these shows, but they have so many more students that they can choose from for the cast,” van Noppen said. “Because we’re smaller, we get access to larger roles, which is really conducive to the learning process for a theatre major. If you never get to act in shows that really challenge you, then there’s no point in being a theatre major.”