This article was originally published in The DePaulia, 4-22-2013.
The life of a typical DePaul Theater School student is hectic, to say the least. Those in the program typically juggle five classes per quarter, along with nightly rehearsals and hours spent preparing lines or perfecting scenes. Attending shows, whether they be student productions or part of the thriving theater community in Chicago, is almost mandatory – an essential adjunct to the curriculum and their evolving knowledge of their profession. All this leaves little time to pursue more personal artistic endeavors like, say, creating a student-run group that puts on showcase performances once every quarter featuring meticulously rehearsed and choreographed songs from eight Broadway musicals.
“We wanted to make an a capella group around Theater School schedules, but every song we wanted to do was a musical theater song,” said Janie Killips, co-founder of Musical Theater Collaborative, explaining her and M.E. Barker’s genesis of the idea. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we just make a musical theater group?’, and that’s how it started.”
Killips, a second-year playwriting major, and Barker, second-year theater arts student, found the time and energy to turn their vision into reality. With MTC and other projects, they are hoping to not only provide an avenue for all theater majors to combine the skills and knowledge learned in their studies, but also to prove that musicals can be much more than showy spectacles.
MTC has put on three showcase performances since the group’s inception in January 2012. Each of the shows consists of single songs from a variety of contemporary Broadway musicals. The most recent show featured songs from “Book of Mormon,” “A Very Potter Musical,” “Into the Woods,” and others. Actors rehearse on the weekends, most of them in multiple songs, memorizing and perfecting the lyrics, blocking and choreography. Killips, a trained pianist, provides accompaniment, while Barker assists with dance routines thanks to her years of experience as a dancer. The cast members, all of them theater students from a variety of disciplines including acting, directing, playwriting and management, collaborate with each other to make each number come together in just a few Saturdays.
“I wanted to do MTC because I love to sing,” said Jared Hecht, who performed in three songs for the last performance. “It was a lot of fun to rehearse every Saturday and make everything happen.”
MTC showcases are equally exciting for the cast and audience thanks to the intimacy of the venue – essentially a classroom. Only a few rooms in the Theater School building have the size and tech capability to accommodate an audience and provide adequate lighting. The room’s small size leaves no barriers between the audience and the performers, making for shows that are literally in your face.
The success of MTC in such a small space serves as encouragement for Killips and Barker, who are inspired by new musicals that rely on “smaller, more intimate shows that really concentrate on telling a good story,” as Killips explained. “That’s essential for good theater.”
Historically, musicals were considered less of an artform than serious plays because they tended to be less, well, serious.
“I’ve been teaching musical theatre at TTS for 25 years, and when I first came here, there was a definite snobbishness about it among the faculty,” said Mark Elliot, the sole musical theater professor at DePaul and faculty sponsor for MTC. Despite being known as one of the top theater programs in the nation, DePaul does not have a musical theater program, and only puts on a musical once every other year.
“[That attitude] has largely dissipated,” said Elliot, “mainly because the lines between musical theatre and other forms of theatre continue to erode.” Modern musicals like “Next to Normal” and “Spring Awakening” deal with tense subject matter like suicide, sexuality and abuse, a far cry from the typical lightheartedness of most shows on Broadway.
“For those writers, the text was just as important as the music,” said Killips. “Understanding the value of text is very important, and I think that’s what respect musical theater is lacking.”
Spurred on by the success of MTC, Killips and Barker have big plans, including writing and staging a full-length musical of their own. They are in talks with American Folklore Theatre of Door County, Wisconsin to commission their musical based on the Wisconsin Amish community. They hope it will contribute to the growing body of new musicals that discuss complex topics and rely on serious acting.
“I think for us as a team, that’s one of our goals in life,” said Barker. “To write musicals that can be taken seriously, and really tackle human issues.”