The Sun Will Come Out, Tomorrow

Middle School Musical Proceeds With Online Production

Students+in+the+MS+Musical%2C+photo+courtesy+of+Ms.+O%27Brien.+

Photo credit: Dana O'Brien

Students in the MS Musical, photo courtesy of Ms. O’Brien.

Forty-three green rectangles and black Annie t-shirts fill the Zoom screen as middle school student performers join rehearsal in costume with their greenscreens hanging up behind them. The production of “Annie Junior”, this year’s Middle School Musical, is still running strong amidst the pandemic.

With most rehearsals being online, it was important for the faculty directors to space out rehearsals in order to avoid the students getting “Zoom fatigue” after spending long hours looking at a screen. Instead of holding frequent all-cast rehearsals as done in the past, the schedule has transitioned to a structure that allows for certain groups of the ensemble to meet each day. In addition to spaced out the rehearsal days, the students also get occasional screen breaks during the Zoom meetings.

“I personally always look forward to musical rehearsal,” eighth grader Ellis Brown said. Brown plays the lead role of Mr. Warbucks. “It’s one of the things I love, and they’re trying to make it a full experience for me which I enjoy.” He later noted how it’s fun to interact with people who might not be in his assigned pod during in-person school.

This new production format came with challenges, but it’s also allowed room for growth and innovation. “We’ve really been stretching what we think we can do and learning about what is actually possible,” Director and Coreographer Dana O’Brien said. “It’s not as robust of a musical as we normally would do, but I think with the constraints that we have, I’m really excited.”

Due to safety protocols, the ensemble can’t sing together in a large group. Instead, each student submits a recording of themselves singing at home which is then layered with the rest of the group on the program, Soundtrap. The Parker staff also hired video professionals and sound engineers to help make the recordings look and sound more uniformed.

In addition to technological advancement, Producer and Music Director Robert Denien touched on the mental development that the students have had to go through. “It’s no small task to ask for the kids to feel comfortable submitting a video or audio of themselves singing,” he said.

Seventh grader Lizzie Park, who plays the lead role of Annie, agrees that having to record herself singing has made the learning process slightly more challenging mostly because of how much time it takes up. “Typically you just rehearse, and then go on,” she said. “Now, it’s so precise that if you’re too close to the mic, you’re going to have to re-record every single space.”

While singing takes lots of the spotlight in these productions, choreography and stage presence are also important. Without being able to meet in-person and with shortened rehearsal time, the performers have had to learn the dances by themselves at home. O’Brien helps out by filming herself doing the choreography and then sending the videos along with a typed out step-by-step instruction sheet in an email. 

Occasionally, one to three cast members are called into the school building to video a scene or record a song. They utilized the Heller Auditorium’s large space to ensure that everyone involved was distanced more than the required six feet. Students take turns singing, removing their mask only for that short period of time. According to Production Manager Tom Moster, this in-person time is really meant for them to “learn their emotions and their staging.” The video is then layered on top of pre-recorded audio.

“It’s very safe,” Brown said. “We’re always six feet apart to limit pod exposure, and when we do have our masks off it’s way more than six feet.” He later noted that he feels “one hundred percent safe” during in-person rehearsals.

The Musical production team has taken a creative approach in order to address the lack of indoor space by filming certain scenes outdoors. Parks in Winnetka and the Lincoln Park Zoo’s North Pond are just two of the many public locations they used around the city. With the help of a professional videography team and video splicing programs, they have been able to make it look like the student performers are walking next to each other, when in reality it’s two separate videos merged together. 

As Denien puts it, the new format has “stretched all of us creatively to figure out how everything can work and fit together.” 

Park shares a similar perspective. “The fact that they’ve been able to do this with all the people who are virtual is astounding,” Park said. On top of her lead role, Park also brought with her an additional cast member: her goldendoodle, Rosie, who plays the role of Annie’s dog, Sandy.

The hard work put in by the production team and student performers will come to fruition with a final video of the show. It will be shared with the Parker community on a Vimeo platform on opening night in late April, and remain available for viewing the following week.

“One thing that keeps us going is knowing that this is something that the kids are actually enjoying, and in the end, they’ll have this final product,” O’Brien said. “We know how privileged we are to be doing something that most people cannot do right now due to the pandemic and we are grateful for this.”