Broadway Director Helps UT Theatre Students Rehearse A Musical

As I walked in to the Winship Drama building on Saturday morning, nostalgia came over me for the days I spent in the chorus of musicals Annie and Grease.

Upon entering the B. Iden Payne Theatre, where UT’s first-ever musical workshop was taking place, I remembered the strenuous practices it took to bring a musical together. I would go to sleep with blisters the size of baseballs and dream of the sun coming out “tomorrow, tomorrow.”

Just imagine what it would be like if the musical had never before been performed, if the musical didn’t even have music yet, and if you had just nine days to bring it all together. This was the case over the weekend at UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance for director Johanna McKeon, MFA ’02, and music director and theatre professor Lyn Koenning, MM ’83, Life Member.

The idea to bring a musical workshop to UT, where a curriculum for musicals was nearly nonexistent, was thrown around by McKeon and Fine Arts dean Douglas Dempster more than a year ago at an alumni mixer in New York City. McKeon is currently associate director of the Tony-winning musical American Idiot.

“It would have been absurdly complicated to do it in New York City,” says McKeon. “I was really trying to make this happen in Texas, and a light bulb went off.” That light bulb was artist, musician, and fellow alumnus Michael Arthur, MA ’93, PhD ’99, who was willing to help.

Arthur designed the stage set for the chosen musical, ROSIE, and sketched rehearsals of the workshop. His intern, a UT student who jumped into the position in the middle of the week, then created an animation of the workshop from Arthur’s drawings in just three days.

A year after the NYC mixer, McKeon and Arthur were back on the Forty Acres, flying “by the seat of our pants,” according to McKeon. For a little more than a week, under the direction of McKeon, UT students, faculty, and professionals from the Austin theatre community were brought together to bring ROSIE — which is based on WWII icon Rosie the Riveter — off the paper, into music, and onto the stage.

And early on Saturday morning (early by my standards being 10 a.m.) that is what I saw. The spectrum of talent was wide-ranging, from ambitious students to credited professionals, yet they appeared so in sync with one another — changing stage directions, music keys, even lyrics with a simple mark of a pencil, then moving on, creating and molding each scene as it played out.

“This kind of experience we can’t recreate in the classroom,” says Koenning. “It’s something we can’t manufacture.”

Top: Theatre students dance a number. Right: Johanna McKeon. Photos by Justin Cole. Courtesy of the UT Department of Theatre and Dance.

Sophie Duvall is a junior majoring in journalism.


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