Last week I was listening to a Downstage Center Podcast from the American Theatre Wing. Susan Hilferty, Broadway costume designer for Wicked, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Spring Awakening was interviewed and talked a lot about the process she goes through. Two points I especially find interesting at the moment: 1) How much the music influences her costume design choices (“the story is just a bunch of ideas, the music is key”) and 2) How most of the creative work is, of course, all going on concurrently and it’s not until very late in the process that things come together and you actually see what you’ve got. For most of us, when you hear West Side Story or Wicked or Sweeny Todd, we have some immediate impressions. But for many members of the creative teams involved, most of the work takes place before they get that cohesive image they are creating. “I’m always having to imagine all those pieces on the stage. But there’s no moment when all those pieces are together before the technical rehearsals start.”
That’s certainly true for our annual local high school production. Even though it’s a Broadway classic, Northwood’s Guys & Dolls might as well be an original creation for most of the students working on the show. New music they’ve never heard to learn, a new set to create, new light and sound design, new lines to learn, new accents to master, new students learning the whole process, new opportunities for collaboration, problem-solving, cooperating. It is fascinating to watch the director take all these disparate strands of student activity and get them on a trajectory to (almost always) peak at the same time. [Of course there have been some past performances with wet paint on stage, but that just becomes part of the lore.] It’s really an almost year-long process for the production team and a very intense project for those dedicated students that come back year after year. Audiences only get to see the tip of the iceberg. But audiences are the last variable that will make or break a show. The difference that half a house and standing room only can make in the quality of a show is mystifying and terrifying.
The company is spending twelve hour days at school now. Opening night is a week away. This kind of project is going on at schools across the country during the spring. During the month of March alone, MTI, the licensing agency, is listing 101 productions of Guys & Dolls. It’s not Broadway. It’s an incredible, learning project that students never forget. A senior told me this weekend that this was her 6th show. Like the senior three years ago talking about his last show, she’s beginning to realize she is now at that same place.
“Now I understand what he was talking about.”