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Summer workshop allows students to explore musical stagecraft

By : Lee Shepherd

Sixty high school students got an inside look at what it takes to put on a musical during the Summer Youth Musical Theater Workshop offered through the Music Department. The youngsters produced the school edition of Les Mis, handling everything from stage
When Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney said “Let’s put on a show!,” the result was some modest singing and hoofing in a barn. When Aaron Nicholson ’98, Brenda Dawe and Elaine Tamaru said “Let’s put on a show,” the result was a full-scale, lavish production in the Watters Theater of the most popular show ever to hit Broadway, Les MisÚrables.

The trio, all Tri-Cities Opera veterans, put their heads together this summer to direct the blockbuster musical — using not seasoned Equity actors from the Big Apple, but youngsters from area schools. The Summer Youth Musical Theater Workshop enrolled 60 students — from the best area theater students to novices who’d never set foot on a stage but longed for the limelight.

By all accounts, the show was an astounding success, with adrenaline heightened by the Northeast power blackout.

“The show went amazingly well,” said Nicholson. “I was stunned. I think the parents were too. They were picking their jaws up off the floor.”

During the July 28-August 17 course, students learned every aspect and angle of mounting a musical, from singing technique to acting skills, set design to costume preparation, makeup artistry to quick improvisation when the unexpected occurs on stage. Daily pep talks were part of the routine. Focusing energy and teamwork were recurring themes.

“This is a team effort,” Dawe told the students after a grueling run-through of the first act. “It’s about 34 people on the stage working together. If you’re not on stage, if you’re in the wings, you’re still helping. If you’re not, go home and hang your head in shame.”

“Like any company, you must get everyone looking in the same direction,” added Nicholson. “When you accomplish that, the energy is unstoppable.”

Nicholson, a graduate of BU’s master of music in opera program, said his goal was to get the young actors “to focus their talent like a laser beam, so it cuts a swath of amazement through the audience.

“There are so few things that have an impact on kids after a certain age, that affect them so much that they change them. Between the age of 12 and 18, a kid can really be shaped and changed through the arts — music, theater, the fine arts like painting. I’ve seen these kids come in reticent, hesitant, with no confidence — kids who couldn’t even put together two words in the audition. The next year, the same kid will be a standout in the show. You’ve instilled confidence in them that translates into every other aspect of their lives.”

“It’s so much better to screw up strong,” Tamaru said in another pep talk to the assembled cast. “Go at it 100 percent, rather than at 50 percent. Take a risk. Take a chance. When you have great energy, it’s really fun to watch. That’s what makes a show look professional.”

Formerly the Tri-Cities Youth Musical Theater Workshop, the three-week summer program moved to Binghamton University this year, with sponsorship from the Music Department and Continuing Education & Outreach.

“The University is quite pleased to partner with the success that Brenda, Aaron and Elaine have had in the past,” said Bill McClure, Continuing Education & Outreach program director, “and also to have it on campus, bring it (the program) to a new level and have a couple of nice performances on the weekend.”

Les MisÚrables, written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, is one of Broadway’s greatest musical theater successes, grossing more than $395 million and having been seen by 50 million people worldwide (Cats is the only show that has run longer on Broadway). Its poignant story is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, an epic saga that sweeps through three turbulent decades of 19th-century French history.

The students in the summer workshop put on the school edition of Les Mis, a shortened but not watered-down version of the show. Les Mis is not your typical musical, either. For starters, it’s sung like an opera.

“I had a big job to do,” said Dawe. “This is a lot for them to get their teeth into. The show is huge, especially for our male leads. Every person in the cast is working constantly on every part of the production.”

Anna Wendlent, an 18-year-old Greene High School graduate who played Cosette, had experience on stage as Kate in her school production of Kiss Me Kate and in parts with SRO Players and the Tri-Cities Youth Musical Theater Workshop. But, she said, playing a lead in Les Mis topped them all.

“The incredibly poignant story, the opportunity to work with Brenda, Elaine and Aaron who are so talented, made it amazing,” she said. “It pushed me to whole new levels.”

Wendlent said she hopes to one day transmit what she’s learned to other theater students. She’ll enter the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam this fall and plans to major in music education.

“I debated long and hard between music performance and music education, but music ed won out,” she said. “I want to work with kids and to watch them blossom and grow through musical theater experience.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08