Oklahoma: The making of a musical at Uni

Nika Cooper

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Fifteen minutes until opening night of Oklahoma – 4:45 p.m., Wednesday, April 11

The chattering of voices fade as the director gathers the waiting actors in a circle, mirrors, chairs, and makeup carts being moved out of the way to make room. The director, Chris Guyotte or “Fing” as the students call him, always makes sure to do a warm up to prepare the actors and technicians. Tonight, they wish each other success in the show by making personalized comments to the person to their left. Then, the students are instructed to hug each person in the cast and crew. Chaos ensues as people try to remember who they have hugged and who they haven’t. Guyotte returns to the North Attic. There are now seven minutes until the show begins.

As “places” is called, the lead rushes out the door. People collect in circles, waiting for their cue to come through the speakers. Ado Annie practices her song quietly under her breath, Ali Hakim reviews his lines with Jud. A circle of ensemble girls quietly chat. The air backstage is brimming with an excited tension, as people try to stay calm while hoping everything will be perfect for opening night. The orchestra tunes and the audience quiets. While the show may only last two magical hours, the audience is only viewing the result of many months’ worth of work.

Pre-Audition

The preparation for the show actually began the year before, when Guyotte and Rick Murphy, the music director, had to decide what musical to do. There are always many aspects under consideration when choosing a musical – the students they had, the orchestration, family appropriateness. For example, the orchestra should have enough classical instruments to give enough kids a chance to play, and they have an idea of what student can play each role so that they know it’s possible. Cost is another big factor, as applying for rights for a musical is much more expensive than applying for rights for a play. “Sometimes they’re almost five times as much,” Guyotte says, comparing next year’s fall play – $300 – with Oklahoma’s cost – $1800.

Only after getting the rights, involving an application process and a legal check-over by the University, can Guyotte commit to doing the show.

After the musical is chosen, Guyotte spends “countless hours reading and thinking about it, trying to figure out what my vision is, how to develop it, who I think can fit into a role.” He hates when people compare his shows to Broadway or movie versions and try to correct him. “We’re not anybody else, we’re Uni. We can only do our production.”

Keeping in mind the small space of Uni’s theater, Guyotte begins designing the set and light. Most musicals, including Oklahoma, have multiple settings throughout the show, and so a simple set is required for an easy transition from one to the other. In Oklahoma, Guyotte used a backdrop with different paint jobs for each location, as well as having the platform with the house represent a different space by turning it and moving it. It takes a lot of time and energy to figure out. As soon as the previous show ends, Guyotte begins to build the set. This year he had his stagecraft class to help him construct it, but usually he does it mostly by himself.

Auditions and Casting

“People don’t like the term pre-casting, but frankly I go into auditions with a pretty strong idea about who I want in what role,” Guyotte explains. He believes it is necessary to the development of his vision and to all the work he does prior to auditions. However, “that doesn’t mean my mind can’t be changed.” Auditions are both a chance to change Guyotte’s mind and/or to confirm his decisions.

Actors auditioning for Oklahoma were asked to sing 32 bars of a Broadway style song and to bring music so Murphy could accompany them. They performed their songs in front of everybody else auditioning as well. Some years, actors are also asked to perform a monologue, and some years auditions are private for only Guyotte and Murphy to see – it depends on the year. “Truth is, when we do the audition, Mr. Murphy tends to make sure the person can sing the part, but then I do the actual casting,” says Guyotte.

Though callbacks happened for Oklahoma, they rarely happen at Uni, and when they do they are merely “for making sure that I’m right about my casting decision,” says Guyotte. Sometimes, he doesn’t even call back people he intends to cast as the lead.

After castings are finalized and announced, it’s time for rehearsal.

Rehearsals

Rehearsals begin with a read through, where the actors sit down and read through the script in character for the first time as a cast. This typically lasts the first two-three days of rehearsal, and is perhaps one of the most joyful stage of the rehearsal process. The actors, riding high on excitement for the show’s beginning, get to enjoy every punchline and joke for the first time, laugh at character impressions, and struggle to read the Oklahoman dialect of words like “cain’t”.

After read throughs, the actors block the show – they go through each scene and figure out what actions they do with what lines. The stage manager writes down all the blocking, so that they can remember it. This is perhaps the most “tiring” part of rehearsal, according to stage manager Elizabeth Rienstra. “It sort of sucks, but you can stand it,” she elaborates. Especially during test-heavy weeks, slowly crawling through the script can feel dull for actors and technicians alike, but it’s a crucial step for putting the show together. The actors also learn the choreography during this time, a difficult but fun part of the process that adds laughter back to rehearsal as they trip over their feet learning the two-step. Choreography and dances are unique to musicals and are just as important for storytelling as the songs and words.

After going through the entire show and blocking it, the actors, who have been memorizing the lines in the free time, begin to do run throughs without their scripts. The stage manager gives them their lines if they forget. “That’s kind of the worst part honestly,” stage manager Elizabeth Rienstra says with a laugh. “Without fail, every time you look away (…) someone calls line.” This time is also when the “mid-rehearsal blas” hits, as Guyotte calls it, “where everybody’s sick of the show and wishing they could do something else”. Morale is low, and it’s up to Guyotte to bring it back up. “I have to make the actors understand what thing they could show the audience,” he explains. “We have to work through it.”

After each rehearsal, Rienstra sends out a daily rehearsal report covering what they did that they, what props they need, and other important information so people who are absent can be aware of what they missed.

Music rehearsals also occur throughout these three stages. This element is unique to musicals, and actors have to spend extra time practicing their songs and learning to combine it effortlessly with their dancing and acting. The pit orchestra adds an extra challenge, as the two groups struggle to find a balance and work together.

The Show Must Go On

Tech week begins on Sunday, where all the elements of the show are combined for the first time – costume, lights, microphones, makeup, and pit orchestra. It’s a chaotic time usually as technology fails and actors forget lines, but it pulls together quickly and for the first time, the show begins to feel complete.

However, not everything goes to plan. When the actor for Ali Hakim in Oklahoma was unable to make it to the performances, Mariano Herrera had to step in. “Filling in last second was extremely stressful, but also rewarding,” Herrera says. He had to quickly learn all of Hakim’s lines, songs, and blocking, as well as try to deliver a convincing performance as the character. Luckily, the cast was there to support him and help him, and the show went on.

Tech week went by in a blur. Each day started with dinner at 4 PM, then a rush up to the South Attic to do makeup and costumes, card games backstage as the cast waited for the runthrough to start, and cramming as much homework as they could in as little time possible. Before the cast knew it, it was opening night.

Performances

While mistakes may be made on stage, the actors have learned how to continue and pull through it, and consistently nail each performance to the delight of their loving parents, teachers, and friends.

Closing night is always one fraught with tears, as the cast must bid the seniors a farewell. As they stand in the circle for the pre-show warm up, tears begin to flow freely from many eyes, and the seniors are hugged closely as the underclassmen are now forced to face the fact that they will never do a Uni show with their senior friends again. After lots of crying, the group disbanded in time for the show to start. Makeup is quickly fixed and lines reviewed one last time before the actors must enter the stage and perform for the final time.

But even after the actors have taken their final bows, their work isn’t finished. It’s time to gather and sort the costumes, props, and scripts. It’s a chaotic thirty minutes, with everybody trying to get as much work done as they can so they can leave. In most shows, the cast stays to help take down the set, another hour at the least. Even then, it’s not the cast’s last time together, as a cast party will be happening that night. The room slowly empties until only the director is left, and over the course of the next week the set will disappear as well, leaving a bare stage.

The work for Oklahoma is complete. The curtain has finally fallen.

Only a month later, the work for the next musical has begun as Guyotte and Murphy must decide what to perform. Due to a lack of men available for next year’s show, the musical they are looking for must be mainly female leads, as well as still being family appropriate, affordable, and having a big enough orchestra. Their search has been fruitless so far, and though they are still searching, the possibility remains that next year there may be no musical.

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About the Writer
Nika Cooper, Writer

Class of 2020

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Oklahoma: The making of a musical at Uni