Cabaret Reinvented: A New Way to Take the Stage

Newsies, the Sidwell Friends spring musical of 2020, had a very limited engagement.

“The very last thing that we did before we went into this hybrid world was the musical,” said Upper School choral music teacher Sarah Markovits. “Our opening night was our closing night.”

With local and national guidelines for the performing arts consistently shifting, even a year later Markovits knew that a traditional, in-person performance this spring was probably not going to happen. But this time she had time to prepare, and a little bit of experience, thanks to mounting a virtual show last summer.

“I realized this summer, when I think we had 12 actors, that any more than that would be really, really difficult,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we weren’t limiting any opportunities for student participation, so I thought we could open it up.” That meant, instead of putting together a traditional show over Zoom or another video service, the Upper School presented a cabaret-style Musical Theatre Showcase (click here to watch). Students rehearsed and performed mainly at home, with the tech crew—who would normally be running lights and sound and all of the backstage work that makes the onstage work possible—splicing the various performances together to create a cohesive whole. It wasn’t typical, Markovits said, but the students were all in from the beginning.

“I think they were excited that there was going to be something, because we haven’t done any other theatrical productions in the Upper School this year,” Markovits said. “From the very beginning of the year I had kids asking me, ‘Are we getting to do something? What are we going to do?’ At the beginning of the year, I had no idea what it was going to look like, but I said ‘we can do something, and we will do something.’”

“I’ve been doing theater at Sidwell or otherwise since I was nine,” said Philip Cullen ’21, one of the student performers. “This is my last real Sidwell show, so I knew I was going to do it. Getting involved, there was a bit of trepidation, but I was on board from the start.”

Twenty-seven students worked on 12 numbers from shows including Hamilton, Waitress, and Annie Get Your Gun. Living rooms, kitchens, and basements were the sets and students’ closets provided the costumes. After recording themselves, the footage went to the tech crew, including stage manager Julia Margie ’22.

“I had to do the stuff where people would ‘hand’ each other things, but maybe they weren’t lined up in the frame,” she said. “So I’d have to adjust the timing and freeze them in place for a second. And everyone was recording their audio separately and then they would record all of the video together on Zoom, so I spent a lot of time on the songs that I put together to make them line up. It worked, it looks good now, but it was definitely a struggle for parts of it. It was really cool to get that different experience, and I’ll definitely carry it forward.”

With Markovits unable to attend every virtual rehearsal, the student actors had to develop a new level of independence when it came to forming their scenes.

“Ms. Markovits took a hands-off approach to directing; it was very much ‘here’s an idea of what I want you to do, but you can figure out the specifics,” Cullen said. “On Zoom that sometimes created an extra challenge, but working with some of the younger folks, I was able to build up a relationship and a rapport with them by just figuring it out what we were doing. I think the ability to make a lot of the creative decisions yourself, without relying on the director to tell you every individual thing to do, was a great opportunity.”

“One of the things that I love is the flexibility and the collaboration that happens,” said Markovits. “Going in with a very general idea of what I want, but letting the kids drive it. I gave the kids a lot of flexibility; they were able to give input if they thought something looked good or didn’t look good.”

Once the virtual curtain closed, Markovits and all of the performers undoubtedly had learned new lessons and obtained more skills—some, perhaps, that they were ready to put down for a bit.

“I am not going to look at iMovie for another year,” said Margie.

What Markovits kept at the forefront was the Musical Theatre Showcase was just another way the Sidwell Friends community rose to a challenge.

“I didn’t want us to pretend that this is something that it’s not. This is not a high budget, big production musical that just happens to be on Zoom,” she said. “This is us on Zoom, singing songs, doing what we can with what we have, and making it the best we can.”

 

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