Over the past few months, Kristian Sorensen has learned a fundamental truth about directing a high school musical: It ain’t easy keeping 40 squirrelly teenagers on task.
Especially when the directors — like Sorensen — are themselves still in high school.
The Santa Barbara High junior is among four student directors of the school’s ninth annual student-run Broadway revue, perennially known as Music of the Night, which opens Thursday and runs through Saturday. (The other directors are Kendra Costigan, Michael Landecker and Jana McIntyre.)
“There’s lots of ‘Be quiet!’ and ‘Shut up!’” during rehearsals, Sorensen admitted while manning the sound system during the hours-long frenzy of the third-to-last rehearsal. “Some of these people I’ve been friends with since the second grade. Now I have to order them around.
“Sometimes I feel bad. But most people understand we just have to put a show together.”
The aim of the show is not only to give students the opportunity to run an entire production, but also to raise money for some of the school’s performing-arts programs. This year’s proceeds will bolster the budget for Santa Barbara High’s next big theater production, Footloose, as well as help send the school’s Madrigal Singers to Europe this summer.
The production doesn’t just include a few student directors; it is 100-percent produced, directed and administrated by the students. This means that, aside from a couple of members of the pit orchestra, there are no adults involved.
It also means teenagers are in charge of managing everything: The casting, the dance choreography, the musical selections, the costumes, the lighting, the sound, the sets — even the necessary paperwork to get their fellow students out of class early.
To some, the whole affair might smack of a Lord-of-the-Flies-style death wish. But this year, at least, out of the cauldron of youthful chaos, an energetic — and edgy — musical medley has emerged. Accompanied by a live band, this year’s ensemble comprises 16 songs from Broadway musicals such as Hair, The Lion King, A Chorus Line, Xanadu, Wicked and Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The lineup, selected wholly by the student directors, also showcases some performances that are, certainly by high-school theater standards, bold.
One song, “If You Were Gay (That would be OK),” comes from a Tony Award-winning Broadway performance called Avenue Q, a take-off on Sesame Street that incorporates puppetry, but centers on themes pertaining to young adults, not preschoolers.
Another number, “The Cell-Block Tango,” from the musical Chicago, is a darkly humorous prison scene in which several femme-fatale inmates try to explain why they killed their husbands. (“He ran into my knife. He ran into my knife 10 times!”)
Then, there’s the silly minded policemen-striptease scene from The Full Monty, a Broadway-hit-turned-comedic-film about a group of unemployed men who decide to make a buck by forming a brigade of amateur Chippendales. (Rest assured, the students don’t get past their boxer shorts.)
And finally, the medley includes a song from the cleverly titled Urinetown, a musical about a small town whose residents, because of a water shortage, are forced by the local government to pay for the use of public restrooms.
Landecker said he and the other directors realize some of their selections are daring.
“We like pushing the limit a little bit,” he said. “But, to be honest, they are just really good songs.”
The Music of the Night tradition started on a whim nine years ago, when a group of students decided they wanted to produce a musical by themselves. Since then, it has taken on a life of its own. Every year, the four directors select the next four.
For a high school theater student, it’s no small honor — or responsibility. The challenge, in fact, is a good way of turning a teenager into an instant adult, if for only a few hours a day.
Because Music of the Night is so popular, the demand for parts is high. This, of course, means not everyone will get one. And because the student directors are the producers of the play, it is they who are tasked with the dirty duty of making the casting cuts.
This year, only half of the roughly 80 students who tried out landed a part. Making the cuts was so agonizing to the student directors that they created parts for about 40 actors, when the script really only called for 30.
As on Broadway, once the cast of Music of the Night is selected, the members are expected to show up every day — or be fired.
“We’ve had to drop two people for not coming,” Landecker noted.
Added Sorensen, “We’re here all the time, and expect no less from people who have to be here for snippets of time. Everybody has to be completely committed, dude.”
Costigan, the dance choreographer, said the dynamic can be awkward, because many students aren’t hip to being told to keep quiet by other students their same age — and she doesn’t blame them.
“If we were in their position, we’d be talking, too,” she said. “Everybody gets frustrated with each other, but in the end it’s so satisfying.”
The experience has helped clarify the ambitions of the two senior directors. Landecker said he is applying to schools with good theater-management programs; Costigan, who is also college-bound, is interested in working in the music industry, perhaps as a band manager.
The experience has also created memories that are sure to last, starting with a frightful fund-raising Halloween walk in Landecker’s quarter-mile-long driveway, which generated some $2,500 to be used on stage props and to pay the band.
Also, on some days after the rehearsals — which stretched from 3 to 8 p.m. daily — the directors and actors would go home, clean up and go out, but as friends.
Despite all the tough peer-to-peer love — and perhaps because of the high expectations the students have of one another — the directors say this particular show is sure to shine.
“I think this is going to be the best one yet,” said Sorensen.
Show times are 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Santa Barbara High theater, 700 E. Anapamu St. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students. Click here for more information.
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