Musical theatre club tries to fill a campus void

By Lindsay Carroll

A new club is trying to fill a gap for some theater enthusiasts who are disappointed by the lack… A new club is trying to fill a gap for some theater enthusiasts who are disappointed by the lack of musical theater currently available at Pitt.

The Pitt Musical Theatre Club performed a variety of songs from musicals such as “Wicked,” “Avenue Q” and “Cabaret” to an audience of students and community members packed into the Frick Fine Arts building Friday night.

The club held its first performance for free with requests for donations.

Larissa Briley, co-director of the performance and president of the club, said she came up with the idea to start the group at the beginning of last semester. She asked her friend Monica Meinert to be vice president and help direct the show.

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They set up a table at the Student Activities Fair at the beginning of this year and provided contact information lists for interested people.

“The responses from people were amazing,” Meinert said.

Briley said the group got “pages and pages” of e-mail addresses from people who attended the fair.

More than 200 students joined the club’s Facebook group, and more than 60 showed up to the first meeting, Meinert said. Currently, about 30 members attend meetings regularly, she said.

Throughout the semester, the group hosted speakers and watched musicals together. Meinert said she and Briley wanted it to be more than a performance group. They wanted the club to be for anyone who enjoyed musical theater.

“We wanted to stress that you can appreciate musical theater without performing it,” Meinert said.

For the performance, Meinert and Briley held auditions to see what people’s capabilities were. All 35 students who showed up for auditions performed in the show. The directors gave solos and lead voice parts to some of the people who tried out.

The difficulty of planning musicals

Pitt currently offers programs through the Pitt Repertory Theatre, which performs plays and student-directed productions. There are several theater groups on campus, such as Buscare and the Redeye Theatre Project, but the Pitt Musical Theatre Club is currently the only student group focused on musical theater.

Bruce McConachie, who chairs the theater department, said that his department offers a musical theater class and some play productions that feature music.

He said the main problem with producing a musical is that it can be very expensive. Musicians for a pit orchestra can be one of the biggest expenses.

McConachie said that in the past, the music department and the theater department have not been able to collaborate for a musical theater production. Part of the reason, he said, was that musicians in the music department often performed other kinds of work.

He said without volunteer musicians, the theater department would have to hire, and along with costume, set and royalty expenses, producing a musical might not bring in enough revenue in box office sales to outweigh the costs.

Mathew Rosenblum, the music department chair, said he thought any opportunity for music students to play would be “great,” and the department has collaborated with the theater department before for some productions.

Rosenblum, who became the department chair in 2007, said he doesn’t recall being approached about a musical, but it’s possible that in the past, there wasn’t enough interest among music students.

“If there’s interest, there’s interest,” Rosenblum said. “If there’s not, we can’t force students.”

Rosenblum said that the music department could “put the word out,” and students who were interested could volunteer.

But McConachie said that collaboration is often difficult with other departments because the theater department has to plan its season production schedule at least a year in advance.

“That kind of planning is kind of hard for other departments to accommodate to,” McConachie said.

This planning includes figuring out a budget, who will design what and who will direct what, along with many other things, he said.

McConachie said if a club could guarantee the department that there would be students to play in a pit orchestra for a musical production, then the theater department might be able to “go ahead” with a production. But that’s not likely to happen any time soon because of the commitment it would require, he said.

Both department chairs agreed that the Pitt Musical Theatre Club was a good idea.

“I hope they will be doing more evenings of performances,” McConachie said.

Producing a low-budget show

Meinert said she and Briley, along with their assistant director Brian Pope and choreographer Christy Savage, worked with the performers during practices for two months.

Meinert said Pitt Musical Theatre Club hasn’t requested money and operates with a very low budget. Briley said the group doesn’t have major expenses for regular meetings, and any minor expenses are paid for by members.

But doing a full musical production would bring significant costs to the group, she said.

Sean Malloy, the group’s musical director, said performing and preparing for a show can be difficult, and that he was impressed with the dedication in the club.

“So many things can go wrong if people don’t want to try,” Malloy said.

Lauren O’Leary, who graduated from Pitt in April and attended the show, said she appreciated the variety of songs the club members performed.

“You can tell how much effort they put into it,” O’Leary said.

Austen Terwilliger, another Pitt graduate whose brother, Evan, performed in the show, said he was impressed with the quality of the performances.

“I was surprised how this was just a club, but they found so much talent,” Terwilliger said.

Jon DeBona, a junior marketing major, said when he came to Pitt, he really wanted to perform in musicals and was excited when the club formed.

DeBona said the group is pushing to perform a full musical in the future, but the task can be difficult. The rights to perform it can be expensive, he said.

The club members tailored some of the acts to apply to college students. In a performance of the song “What Is This Feeling?” from the musical “Wicked,” in which a college-aged Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” meet for the first time as ill-fated roommates. The cast members changed the lyrics to make it seem like the event took place at Pitt.

Some of the other acts were more adult-oriented.

The cast performed “The Internet Is for Porn” from the musical “Avenue Q,” which features puppets singing songs with adult themes (another song from the show is called “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”). This earned the loudest round of applause from the audience.

Students Katie Hutchison and Francis Dy teamed up for the song, along with a four-person men’s chorus. Hutchison, playing the role of a teacher planning to educate children about the Internet, flaunted a squeaky, high-pitched voice, while Dy, playing a puppet, sang his lines gravelly.

They also performed “Totally F*cked” from the musical “Spring Awakening.”

Ben Kaye, who had a lead role in the song, was born in London, where he said he went to shows with his parents. He moved to New York seven years ago, and now, he’s a freshman at Pitt.

He said he didn’t expect to be singing the main part of the “Spring Awakening” song, in which the performers, acting as frustrated, school-bound teenagers, jump around stage and rip pages out of notebooks.

“It’s a pretty angry song, I guess,” he said.