Arts & Entertainment

Rockford University Debuts New Musical

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It’s rare for college students to debut a Broadway-league musical, and yet it’s happening, right here in Rockford. Learn how this opportunity arose for Rockford University students.

Rockford University students are performing “Techies,” a new musical comedy, on their home stage before bringing the show to New York this spring. (Rockford University photos)

Rockford University students are performing “Techies,” a new musical comedy, on their home stage before bringing the show to New York this spring. (Rockford University photo)

W hen she began her studies at Rockford University (RU) as a performing arts major, Janelle Good dreamed of appearing on a New York stage. Little did she know her dream would be realized even before she graduated.

Enter lyricist Sam Carner and composer Derek Gregor, New York songwriters who fuse classical musical theater and contemporary pop-rock to produce songs that have been performed by Broadway stars Lea Salonga, Jeremy Jordan and Tituss Burgess, among others. The award-winning duo’s musicals “Unlock’d” and “Island Song” have been performed at dozens of theaters around the world.

Carner and Gregor were impressed when they saw YouTube videos of RU students performing their work. So, they came to Rockford to hold a master class in 2017, during which they were especially wowed by Good. From Highland, Calif., the 21-year old senior came to RU by way of her high school’s participation in the International Thespian Festival, where she had successful auditions. Interested in trying out another part of the country, she found RU to be a good fit.

“Small class size and a great one-to-one teacher-student learning environment first attracted me to the department,” Good says. “The school’s performing arts environment is very welcoming, and friendly students made it feel like a family. I very much appreciated that the emphasis is on helping individual performers develop according to their specific interests.”

Now a musical theater major with minors in dance and psychology, Good has stage experience from appearing in numerous productions at the university. This helped her refine skills she needed to stand out to Carner and Gregor, who invited her to perform a number from “Island Song” for an evening concert in Times Square last fall. “It still gives me a thrill to remember that moment,” she says.

But there was more to come. The songwriting team is workshopping their new musical at the university this spring, as they felt “RU students have the talent and the passion,” says Carner. During the workshop process, a new work is performed so that the composers/authors can see their words come alive on stage and get immediate feedback on what works and what needs to be adjusted or cut.

“The challenge for students is to learn new music and lines quickly, sometimes within a few hours or a day, as material is altered and added to the production,” explains Deborah Mogford, professor of performing arts and department chair at the university.

“This baptism by fire provides excellent training for the professional world.”

The month of hard work is worth it to the students, Good adds. “Performers dream of having the opportunity to contribute to the development of a brand-new piece that will be performed and seen by scores of others.”

The project at hand is “Techies,” a musical comedy which tells the story of two clans at West Side High: the actors, and the “techies” who provide the sets, lighting, sound, makeup and costumes for a production. Often, neither group is favored socially in the high school setting and are thought of as geeks, Carner explains. He notes that within the world of high school performance and beyond, actors often rank above techies, leading to competition between these groups and sometimes individuals.

“This pop-rock musical comedy is about being weird and fighting for respect in one of the most judgmental places on earth – high school,” Carner says.

In this musical, techie Joan tries to bolster the confidence of her shy actor friend, Veronica, by posting her picture online. Rocketing to popularity after a star athlete notices her, Veronica then snubs her techie friend. This fuels Joan’s simmering desire to take down spotlight-hungry actors; she leads a techie rebellion and the actors retaliate. But actors can’t be heard without proper sound work, and without actors, the techies have no purpose.

As funding cuts loom, will the actors and techies recognize that they are dependent on one another to keep their theater program alive and put on their musical about Charles Darwin? Will their own vanity do them in?

At the end of this workshop, 24 students are going to New York City in early March to perform selections of the musical at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, in the heart of Greenwich Village.

“The students will be able to add the experience to their resumés, network with a variety of top professionals, as well as RU alumni, and get a feel for working in New York,” Mogford says.

“We are grateful to Rockford University for the opportunity to workshop a new piece and develop a relationship with writers,” adds Gregor. “It’s rare for college actors to be able to perform material that hasn’t been performed before. We applaud the faculty for providing unique experiences for their students.”

After showcasing “Techies” at the Duplex, Carner and Gregor plan to further refine the musical by working with a high school performing arts department, preparing it to be performed in high schools and other theaters.

Meanwhile, Good is auditioning for summer theater troupes around the country and is looking forward to the future, which will probably include a move to New York City.

“Rockford University gives students the tools they need to succeed in this crazy industry,” she says.

Breaking the ‘Fourth Wall’

In stage productions, an imaginary barrier, called the “fourth wall,” separates the actors from the audience. The back and sides of the stage make up the other three walls. Performers speak or sing to one another, and despite being watched intently, they ignore the audience until the final bows. The audience sits in darkness, watching the story unfold on the stage.

One of the themes of “Techies the Musical” is the tension that develops between actors and the technical crew as the two groups prepare to put on a high school musical. In the world of performance, techies often are viewed as being on a “lower rung” than actors. The crew that manages the sound, lights, props, sets, makeup and costumes are literally invisible to theatregoers. While they perform multiple functions essential to a performance, the audience is unaware of them. Actors are made up and costumed offstage, props are in place when the curtains rise, and sets are changed quickly in the dark by anonymous stagehands clad in black. The sound system is noticed only when it doesn’t work properly and spotlights are taken for granted, coming from somewhere behind the audience.

Songwriting duo Carner and Gregor break the fourth wall in their musical by including the technical crew as part of the story they are telling. The spotlight operator is in love with one of the actors; stuck behind the spotlight, the operator is invisible and unable to connect because of the social disparity between them as well as their physical separation across the theater. Carner and Gregor bring the spotlight operator out of the dark as the story progresses. She appears in the spotlight, singing of an aching heart and the desire to know the actor. The audience then experiences an actor playing a techie. Stagehands are revealed as well, moving props and sets with the lights on.

By making the techies part of the story, the duo has raised the techies’ status vis-à-vis the actors, in the production and beyond, by literally giving them voice. Inspired by a true story, the duo hopes their musical will provide a vehicle for high schools, colleges and other venues to talk about the divide between actors and techies. Perhaps the outcome will be recognition that, in wide-ranging situations, social pressure can create competition, when working together would produce better results and happier individuals.

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