It is not every day that an original musical written by high school students is premiered in a leading performing arts center. But March 12, 2017 was not an ordinary day. It marked the world premier of We are all Mad Here: A Love Story. The show is about the unlikely pairing of a young billionaire with the ability read minds and a computer hacker who is unable to tell a lie. Created by teens Lillian Mottern and Jack Zager, the piece was presented in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Their project is a result of Creating Musical Theater: A Collaborative Lab, an educational initiative of GRoW @ The Wallis. You may see their show here:
Every art form advances on the strength of the pathway that inspires, trains, and supports young artists. In the ballet world, for example, this often includes the journey from local dance studios, to regional dance centers, to youth companies, to the professional ballet companies. But until recently, there has not been such a pathway for the creators of musicals. Rather, many young people are simply “self-taught” as writers and composers and find their way through informal relationships and contacts.
The Wallis choosing to help fill this void, launched its’ program in the 2015-16 school year. Director of Education, Mark Slavkin, explained that the idea for the program came from two sources. “Musical theater is an important aspect of our programming and we wanted to reflect that in our education work.” He added “while young artists have many opportunities to perform musical theater in Los Angeles, there are very few chances to learn the craft of creating a new musical.”
Stormy Sacks, an accomplished composer and music director was hired to design and teach the course which takes students on the complete journey from initial idea to a performance on stage. Students learn to collaborate with their peers in a give and take process to define the concept, the arc of the story, and the placement and purpose of specific songs. Scripts are written and re-written week to week. Music and lyrics are drafted and then evolve through the creative process. Professional director Randy Brenner works with the students and professional casting director Nicole Berry to audition professional actors for the student shows. After the cast is selected, the students work with Brenner and the actors to refine their work through table reads and initial walk throughs. Finally, the shows are refined for final staging and public performance. Each performance is videotaped and submitted to ShowSearch, a national talent search supported by the Foundation for New American Musicals.
“Our vision is to see a real pathway develop that can lead from high school programs to community colleges to universities to the professional world,” said Bob Klein, Co Executive Producer at the Foundation for New American Musicals. “We are delighted to see The Wallis invest in such important opportunities for young people.”
The professional musical theater community in Los Angeles and nationally has been very supportive and encouraging for the program at The Wallis. Some of the greatest champions have been Michael Kerker at ASCAP and legendary Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz. In 2015-16 Schwartz joined with ASCAP and Dreamworks Animation to provide scholarships to each of the students in The Wallis program. This past February, Schwartz visited the class to see a table reading of the students’ show and offer his expert feedback and encouragement. The students were beyond thrilled to have someone of his stature take them seriously and spend the time providing detailed notes.
“We are delighted The Wallis has made such a strong commitment to the art form of musical theater,” Kerker said. “The quality of the work these students are creating gives me great hope and excitement.”
In planning for the 2017-18 season, Slavkin said The Wallis hopes to focus the program on young artists who have already started creating a musical and want support to expand and refine their work to take it to “the next level.” Details will be posted on The Wallis website.