When UMW Theatre performed Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days in February, students couldn’t anticipate that just weeks later, they’d yearn for rehearsals with castmates and performances in front of live audiences.
They also couldn’t have guessed they’d get to sing one of Gwon’s songs alongside Broadway stars.
Seven UMW Theatre students were selected to appear in a YouTube video featuring aspiring young thespians from schools across the country. Dubbed a “quarantune,” their version of “Get Me Outta Here” from Gwon’s musical String has already been viewed by thousands. Virtual projects like this, as well as Mary Washington’s recent Much Ado About Nothing Zoom production and reimagining of Dear Evan Hansen’s “Anybody Have a Map?” give theatre students the chance to hone in on their craft for the digital age. And the experiences allow them to connect and collaborate with peers and industry professionals during the lockdown.
“Opportunities to perform, even from far away, have helped me channel my emotions and feel less isolated,” said Riley Salazar, a rising UMW junior who starred in Ordinary Days, which she said prepared her to tackle Gwon’s complex melodies.
As the pandemic dimmed the lights of Broadway and COVID-19 cases began to soar in New York and nationwide, Gwon felt anxiety and unease. So did his partner, who joked that the quarantine made him feel like he was stuck in “Get Me Outta Here,” in which characters get trapped in an elevator.
Teaching master classes over Zoom, Gwon wanted to give college students a creative outlet while they were stuck at home, concerned about their futures. “I was inspired by their resilience and dedication,” he said. “They’re pursuing a career already filled with so much uncertainty.”
The celebrated off-Broadway composer and lyricist sent sheet music and lyrics to faculty contacts, including Mary Washington production advisor Brandon Prendergast, with whom he had connected when UMW presented Ordinary Days. Theatre and Dance Chair Gregg Stull reached out to his students and encouraged them to apply.
Participants had a week to record their parts and submit videos to Gwon for editing. Singers were selected from Boston Conservatory at Berklee; the universities of Pittsburgh, Oklahoma and Nebraska-Lincoln; and Boston, Carnegie Mellon, Millikin and Oakland universities. But the largest bloc came from Mary Washington, Gwon said.
“From the number of submissions from UMW, I got the sense they were a tight-knit company of actors that really missed being onstage together.”
Contributing to the four-minute YouTube production was different from working in live theatre, said junior Oscar León. “You aren’t interacting with fellow actors and don’t know what choices they’re making.”
The song’s lyrics remain unchanged from the musical, but in the video, they’re applied to the current situation. The quarantine’s more comical aspects – extreme boredom, lack of toilet paper and wondering if a sneeze is just a sneeze – are combined with real feelings about the pandemic like fear, frustration, regret and loneliness. “If you can make someone laugh, you give them permission and courage to look at the difficult moments,” Gwon said.
Cameos from Gwon’s Broadway friends, like Santino Fontana, Bonnie Milligan and Vishal Vaidya, pop up as social media posts or television spots throughout the video.
“That’s the way we’re all connected right now, through these various screens,” said Gwon, who wanted to show students that everyone in the theatre industry has had their career put on hold.
Sophomore Hannah Chester said she enjoyed showcasing UMW Theatre’s hard work and reuniting with her friends and classmates – albeit remotely. But like Salazar and León, she’s eager to get back onstage at Mary Washington.
“After all this is over and we go back to live theatre,” León said, “I think we’ll see some of the most pure and vulnerable performances we’ve ever seen.”