Junior music major Kristoffer Bjarke loves musical theater. Not only is it his favorite form of music to compose for, but he also believes it is the most collaborative art form in existence.
While he knows that collaborators might think differently than him, he says, “you can’t do it without working with people, which I both love and hate.”
With passion behind him, Bjarke set out to start a club called The SPU Musical Theatre Workshop to model after his idol Stephen Schwartz, an American composer who started something similar at his college. This, he says, is one of the best ways to get experience to be a musical theater writer someday.
“I just love doing it so much,” Bjarke said. “There is no greater satisfaction for me than writing songs for characters because you can put some of yourself into [them without] the performance pressure.”
Though the group received club status back in the fall and are officially recognized by ASSP, insufficient timing to turn in event request paperwork didn’t allow for the group’s spring production to fall under The SPU Musical Theater Workshop name, leaving the initiative solely on the students involved.
Nevertheless, Bjarke’s goal was always to do a student-run musical, and with the help of about 30 students, his dream culminated in the performance of “Francesca: An Original Musical,” on Saturday, May 20, in Nickerson Studios.
While there was a lot they were unsure of at the start, such as whether they would have live music or the recorded soundtrack they ended up with, students embarked on a year-long, collaborative process that resulted in an original student-run, student-directed and student-acted production.
The story highlights Francesca, a young, female writer just three years out of college in pursuit of publishing her first novel. According to Bjarke, the key message of this musical is that dreams don’t mean much if you lose everything else along the way.
Francesca, played by junior Alex Garramone, feels stuck while waiting for her big break and seeks the support of her best friend Milo, played by first-year Connor Gilbert, and her grandma Lola, played by sophomore Emily Faltinson.
“Francesca is an interesting character to me because it would be easy to play her simply; it would be easy to make her this dreamer or this quirky character … and instead I had fun just digging in and finding the little nuances in her part and finding things that made her human,” Garramone said.
While Francesca initially focuses on her own life and her own dreams, what stuck out to Garramone most about her character is that she goes from being very self-motivated to realizing the importance of people over things, goals and career objectives.
Despite past directing and performing experience, “Francesca” was the first original work Garramone had ever been a part of. She found it interesting to work directly with the creators and to see how the story shifted and adjusted throughout the process.
As a theatre education major, Garramone found herself impressed by what students could produce in such a short period of time and even more by the passion shown in student projects.
One difficulty Garramone found was going through initial read-throughs and rehearsals without yet casting a Milo, the other main character. Gilbert, who jumped into the project three weeks into rehearsal, said the experience was unlike anything he’d ever been a part of.
“With what we were given, we really put together something unique and special to us,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert particularly enjoyed the creative freedom he had with his role and his ability to work with those in charge of determining what goes on on stage.
First-year creative writing major and theater minor Abigail Ayull, who went into the first club meeting planning to just give input as needed, stepped up as a lead writer and eventually did most of the directing that brought Bjarke’s dream to life.
Though she had never written a musical before, her love of writing and theater made this “the perfect blend of everything,” she said.
Ayull says much of the script-writing process involved her putting lines to plot ideas expressed by others in various writing meetings throughout Fall Quarter, but assures that she is not the only one who was involved in writing.
“Over winter break, there were a lot of Skype sessions where we would talk about what we wanted to happen,” Ayull said. “A lot of editing happened — and actually most of the script was written — over break.”
Upon returning for Winter Quarter, Ayull says those who stepped up in the writing process continued editing and started casting. By the end of Winter Quarter, the group started rehearsing and working through their plans, and Spring Quarter included all the production.
According to Bjarke, the story started taking form between October and January, and while it turned out to be something far different from what he expected, he said “that is really cool to me.”
By the time Spring Quarter came, he saw that he would have no free time to socialize what with the three-to-four hour rehearsals, happening three-to-four days a week, in addition to songwriting and scene blocking, which involves actor movement on stage, something Bjarke never thought he’d have to do as a composer.
“Assuming all these roles and responsibilities that I never thought I’d have to do, that cast members never thought they’d have to do,” Bjarke said, “that was the biggest surprise — that it wasn’t just about writing music for me.”
While Bjarke was thankful for the experience, he hopes that more people will join the team next year. Both Bjarke and Ayull noted that “Into the Woods,” SPU Theatre Department’s Spring Musical, presented challenges for the Francesca cast, as some actors participated in both productions.
“We’re kind of the underdog running alongside ‘Into the Woods,’ and just getting availability for the spaces to rehearse, just the busyness of this season and finding our resources, have been challenging,” Ayull said.
While Ayull noted that various concerts and the spring musical had people in both the Theatre and Music Departments preoccupied, Bjarke says the group got support from Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Vocal Studies Cherie Hughes, the club adviser, Music and Theatre Program Coordinator Bobbie Childers and “the whole Nickerson team.”
Despite the challenges, Ayull saw camaraderie as the group’s greatest encouragement. She said that as a first-year she played most of the production by ear and was held accountable by her peers, a process she greatly appreciated.
“Goodness, have we bonded through this,” Ayull said. “It’s been such a challenge, but such a reward.”
She described a moment during the dress rehearsal in which she was watching the musical and felt an awe-inspiring moment.
“It was like ‘wow, we created this art from scratch,’” she said. “It was nothing, and now it’s something, and just the teamwork and the support and the passion that’s gone into this, just how much creativity people have and the things people were able to bring to it has culminated to this really beautiful art form that has a lot of mistakes and has a lot of messiness in it, but it’s art and it’s beautiful, and I’m just so proud of us.”
When looking at his dream that became a reality, Bjarke not only appreciates the work behind it, but sees the collaborators in it.
“Someone can look at the show and see me in some way, even if they don’t know it; they don’t know that this lyric is something I believe strongly or that’s related to my experience,” Bjarke said.
“I’m proud of the fact that in some way, shape or form, all of us writers are present in the musical. Even though we’re not on stage, you can hear us.”