Every fall, the senior class of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program puts together a performance to kick off their final year and welcome freshmen to campus. In years past, the senior entrance has taken the form of a private live performance for the musical theatre students and faculty only. The special show is typically about 15 minutes long, featuring funny and personalized rewrites of lyrics to famous musical theatre songs. 

This year, the entrance looked a bit different. Though the students started work on this project in March, they agreed in mid-June that they would not be able to hold an in-person event as planned. Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jack Mastrianni worked as one of the producers of this year’s senior entrance. Not only did these students have to make the responsible and public-health conscious choice not to put each other at risk, but “other programs would be looking to (them) for how to proceed,” Mastrianni recently told The Daily.

Instead of the typical performance, the 24-person musical theatre class of 2021 filmed a nearly 17-minute-long professional-quality video of the group singing and dancing around campus — all completely in compliance with CDC guidelines for public health. 

“The goal was to welcome back the department after a long summer and quarantine, and to start off the year on a positive and upbeat note,” Mastrianni said. In line with tradition, the seniors rewrote the lyrics of songs in shows like “Company,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Frozen” to convey their message. 

Because the idea behind the video was to be conscious of pernicious air droplets spreading the virus, the entire planning, rehearsal and filming had to be altered. Many activities associated with musical theatre itself such as large song and dance numbers have been deemed “super-spreaders” of COVID-19. The students held Zoom rehearsals throughout the summer — no easy task when considering the precision needed to practice such a tightly arranged and choreographed performance. In realizing that they couldn’t social distance while recording in a normal indoor studio, they created a makeshift outdoor recording booth where each of the performers recorded their approximately ten-minute part. Later these were edited together and then matched up with the pre-recorded audio.

Mastrianni also explained that because a video involves so many elements that fall outside the area of expertise of the musical theatre students, like filming and editing, they had to outsource some of the project. The video, which Mastrianni calls “more of a short film” was filmed and edited by staff video producer at Stamps School of Art and Design Nick Beardslee and sound edited by Bradley Gurwin, who is a technical audio director at WolverineSoft Studio. 

It may have been difficult to film these large-scale group dances while still following CDC guidelines, but the process actually made for a very impressive and enjoyable viewer experience, as the spaced-out formations allowed the choreography to shine. The students were also able to feature their favorite campus spots, a new perk of the video format. While acting out the first year on campus in front of their freshman dorm, the students performed a section inspired by “A Chorus Line,” singing “hello North, hello Bursley, freshman year.” Later they walked down the streets of Kerrytown introducing themselves while backed by a song from “Moulin Rouge.”

In light of the outrage, protests and activism surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement this spring and summer, the students also included a section devoted solely to the BIPOC members of the senior class. In a demand for diversity and inclusion in a historically white industry, the students announce that they’re “here to bring the color that’s been lacking” in American theatre. Additionally, the money raised from the ad revenue of the video will be donated to organizations supporting the cause, and the class started a “UMich MT21 Fundraiser for Black Lives Matter” GoFundMe which has already raised over $3,000 as of Sept. 16. 

Along with the fall entrance, SMTD also hosts a senior showcase in the spring which is the class’s traditional introduction to the world of professional musical theatre. However, because of this year’s move to an online format, the class of 2021 has already gained a degree of visibility.

“We’ve almost got an introduction into the world at the beginning of our senior year,” Mastrianni said.

Mastrianni also described how this year’s senior entrance echoes the musical theatre department’s goals for the 2020-2021 school year. While these students carefully planned and executed what can easily be called one of the most memorable senior entrances to date, the faculty of their department were focused on “keeping everyone safe and finding new ways to grow” for the upcoming year. As always, Mastrianni said the department plans to “capture the grade-A, exceptional, ‘leaders and best’ training that is always expected here.”

Daily Arts Writer Caroline Atkinson can be reached at catkin@umich.edu

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