One night in late January, nine students paced around the Rocky College common room’s piano in a state of cheery distress.
“Are we starting soon?”
“It’s gonna be rough!”
“One second, one second!”
The scene resembled the controlled chaos at the start of a Broadway chorus number — at any moment, the players might stop their bustling, face the audience, and belt out a rousing welcome.
But the hubbub was real. A few minutes after the show’s scheduled start, one of the students, Kathy Zhao ’17, turned to address the 40 or so onlookers: “Welcome to our recital performance for ‘Introduction to Musical Theater Writing’! What you’re about to see is what we do in class on a regular basis — learn each other’s songs, script in hand, and perform for each other! Enjoy!”
Then came the show tunes — a shimmering collection of musical entreaties and epiphanies, sung by the students and their friends:
A young, preening Beethoven whips a crowd of symphony-goers into a frenzy to distract from his fears of going deaf: “Hey there Vienna / How you doin’ tonight?”
The deadly sin Wrath (personified as a French femme fatale) tries to keep her boyfriend from walking out: “Let’s stay in tonight / We could watch Atonement!”
Prince Siegfried from the ballet Swan Lake is accosted by an eccentric swan-woman named Grebehilda: “I could be your confide-swan / I’m more than just a side-swan!”
While the night represented the culmination of the seminar’s work, it also marked a new beginning for theater at Princeton. Next year the Lewis Center for the Arts will launch a certificate in music theater. “Introduction to Musical Theater Writing” was a dress rehearsal of sorts for that program.
“This was really a class that was meant for students to make art on their own terms, using themselves as the source of the work,” said Stacy Wolf, the acting head of the Lewis Center and one of the writing class’s teachers. To that end, Wolf and two visiting instructors from New York University’s Tisch School — composer Randall Eng and lyricist Robert Lee ’92 — had students deconstruct classic tunes from shows like Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, and Hamilton. But they also made the class write songs based around fraught relationships in the students’ lives.
That approach stirred up strong emotions, but paid off in the final product, said Hillel Friedman ’17. “When you’re trying to write a really compelling character, and give them a voice, you really need to understand yourself well enough to empathize with your characters,” he said.