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Breaking Tradition and Utilizing Creativity in Musical Theater Performance

by Nick Endicott

[Image: The students of Musical Theater Performance dance to “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)”]

Last semester, Giovanni Ortega of Pomona applied for a Course Development Grant from the Hive to assist in producing the Theater Department’s mainstage musical, Little Women. But due to constraints posed by COVID, the production had to be pushed to the spring. Not letting the allotment go to waste, the grant was instead applied to two classes: Ortega’s Musical Theater Performance, and Voice of Musical Theater, taught by Anne Harley of Scripps.

The results were fantastic and fascinating: an array of video content largely self-produced by the students in the circumstances of their lockdown. Although they would be performing in a relatively novel style, Ortega’s students had their work cut out for them, starting with writing lyrics to an original song. The songs were then set to music by one of four professional composers, a step made possible by the Hive’s funding. Through class, the students developed their performances with choreography and character development, until they were ready to record their songs and accompanying videos.

[Image: Lila Avendaño Dreyfuss performs “Sad Girl Summer, Hot Girl Winter”]

A viewing of this piece not only provides insight into how the pandemic had affected these students’ lives, but it also demonstrates a further analysis of themselves on an individual level. My conversation with Ortega revealed what sparked such thoughtful performances: “the theme that I gave was, how do you fit in society during these times of COVID?”

For one student, that prompt became a powerful ballad about environmental degradation, for another, an interrogation of her Jewish identity. But there was one thing all of these performances shared, organically emerging from the community who elected to take the class. “Female identity is a theme throughout the whole piece,” Ortega said. “It comes up when you create that space with these phenomenal women.”

Because theater is a fundamentally physical art form, conducting this course over Zoom generated its share of challenges. For one thing, the process took much longer. For another: “How are you going to vocalize people?” Professor Ortega filled in these gaps in part by inviting guest speakers from the industry, as well as liberal usage of one-on-one calls. “Being on a one-on-one basis, the energy is really different.” It allowed Ortega to connect with his students more personally, which is crucial for this kind of work.

Another upside? “I’ve seen that the creativity of the participants is utilized to a T. You’re giving them more freedom, and you’re seeing more of their creativity.” Not to mention that “the pandemic really allowed us to be in the moment, and not plan too far ahead” and “the separation made people more vulnerable.”

[Image: Cathy Cai performs “A Song for COVID”]

In watching their final project, it is clear to see that Ortega’s students triumphed over the worst of circumstances, producing a creative work that showcases the best of what theater can be. It is 30 joyful minutes and I highly recommend taking the time to watch it.

In addition, the musical Little Women will be streaming live from May 6th to 9th. If you’re wondering how they managed to pull that off, Ortega tells me “it’s a mixed media of green screen, virtual effects, and live footage.” Although I’m not quite sure how to picture that, it is sure to be another innovative and inspiring production from the Theater Department. Make sure to mark your calendars for Little Women.

And until then, the final project from Musical Theater Performance is available to watch here!