Jackets are strewn across the backs of seats in the audience. In white converse shoes, the villainous Madame Thénardier makes her way towards center stage. Hesitant voices form the outline of what will be a shimmery duet. A revolution is formed by a huddle of hoodie-clad high school students, triumphant fists raised high.
Such is the nature of play practice, specifically for St. Paul Academy and Summit School’s spring musical production of Les Misérables.
The group has been rehearsing since early February primarily learning the music and pairing it with choreography.
“The entirety of February and March was spent in the choir room working just on music. We touched 85 percent of the music before we went on spring break,” Director Eric Severson said.
“We’ve gone through a lot of numbers. The vocal ones are really good. We’re hoping it’s going to be pretty awesome,” Ensemble member Tommy Monserud said.
The strategy so far with rehearsals has been to focus on individual elements of music and choreography, to later be combined with blocking in particular scenes.
“Unlike years past, [Choir Director Anne] Klus and I are there together every rehearsal. With the intensity and the difficulty of the music, it’s best for our cast to be getting used to actually singing it rather than use a Broadway recording to do choreography,” Severson said. “Where we would usually do those three things separately and bring them together for the performance, this show we’re starting with having the cast work on movement, acting, and singing at the same time. By the time we get to tech week and performances, they’ll know it so well that they’re not scared.”
For this production in particular, Severson hopes to implement a unique setup of rehearsals, featuring two consecutive tech weeks leading up to opening night on May 20. This will allow for greater breadth of transition time for a variety of elements unique to the show, including keeping track of 16 solo microphones, lighting, a full orchestra, and special effects including a fog machine.
The cast members have upheld a positive and invested energy with respect to the musical and to each other.
“People seem happy to be there and interact with each other. It’s a fun show, we’re excited about it,” ensemble member Liza Bukingolts said.
Senior Maggie Vlietstra, who plays Cosette, agrees; “those big rehearsals are a challenge. But it’s rewarding and it always pulls together in the end.”
“The cast dynamic has been wonderful. The thing that I’ve really noticed is a great level of support for each other,” Severson said.
In attending any after school rehearsal, this chemistry is evident and refreshing, but most importantly, it is imperative to the success of putting on a show like Les Misérables.
“This is one of the shows that you need the right crew for. As we were thinking about shows, Klus and I had a different show in mind. We just sat back and really thought about it; as we looked, 9-12 grade, we have some of the strongest musicians and singers that we’ve had in awhile,” Severson said. “One of my directing professors in college and grad school told me that there are certain shows. You don’t do Hamlet unless you have a Hamlet. We did Evita in 2007 because we knew we had an Eva and a Che. It was one of those things that felt right. We’re both excited and scared because it is brand new to us, and so exciting.”
To Severson, this play holds immense personal significance; “I remember it was the first CD I ever bought in 1987. It’s just such a part of my being when it comes to musical theater,” he said. “It’s tragic. I joke in rehearsal [that] ‘it’s called The Miserables for a reason. Nothing is happy in your lives.’”
With such a high bar to accommodate Les Misérables comes special challenges. Severson cites artistic flourish: “How do you create an interesting stage picture? How do you create meaning through movement when you’ve got beautiful meaning through the words?”
“I was always really worried about how high schools would ever do shows like this. Now here I am 20 or 30 years later actually staging this. I feel excited, I feel honored, and I’m blown away by the commitment of this cast and crew,” he said. “If all things go according to plan, it’ll set a new standard for our musical performances.”