No one seems to remember the last time the Yale School of Drama has strayed from straight theater, but with this winter’s production of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which will run from Dec. 14 to Dec. 20 at the University Theater, the School of Drama is taking steps in a different, more musical direction.
The production of Stephen Sondheim’s two-time Tony Award-winning musical involves six undergraduates of Yale College, and features a new orchestration headed by musical director Daniel Schlosberg, YSM ’13, BR ’10. “It’s unprecedented,” commented undergraduate Alex Ratner, SM ’14, who is working on the show as an assistant musical director. Director Ethan Heard, YSD ’13, CC ’07, who has taken on the project as his thesis (an independent directing requirement for all third-year directing students), added: “I didn’t think I would propose a musical as my thesis, because I didn’t think the School of Drama did them.”
So why a musical, and why now? “I’ve always loved musicals,” said Heard, who was involved in various musical productions both during high school and his time at as an undergraduate at Yale. “I thought it would be relevant to my classmates and this community.” With a score by Sondheim, one of Broadway’s most challenging composers and lyricists, this complex musical revolves around characters that are, in Heard’s words, “learning, struggling, striving to realize their voices in the world.” Heard elaborated: “It [is] really appropriate and timely for young artists realizing their visions.”
The Yale School of Drama does not offer a musical theater program, and so before accepting Heard’s proposal, the school had to consider the difficulty of finding the vocal strength needed to pull off a musical production. “They realized they had a number of people that can handle the challenges of Sondheim,” Ratner said. “There was simply enough musical talent and ability to put on this show.”
Other logistics, like pinning down a pianist for the daily six-plus hours of rehearsal, syncing the orchestration with voices on stage, and sound designing for a musical performance, pose new challenges for the School of Drama. “[It’s] not just the singing. Everything is timed to the music, to the sound,” said Eric Sirakian, JE ’15, who is working on the production as an assistant director. “It’s Sondheim, it’s a musical. It’s incredibly complicated.”
The School of Drama does not hold auditions for its productions, but Heard and the drama school faculty were careful to ensure there was a group of students who could vocally match the score. “My first year here, I was shocked by how musical my class of actors is,” Heard said. The cast has jumped in enthusiastically. “[Cast members are] really hungry to work on the music, and work on their voices,” Heard said. Heard and his cast have met with broader institutional support. “The drama school has really gotten behind this project,” he said.
Despite the challenges presented by Sunday in the Park with George, Sirakian points out that innovation is exciting, particularly to young artists. “Challenges are always well-received,” he said. “We love pushing beyond what people think is possible.” Heard is confident his cast and crew are ready to tackle this ambitious task. “We have 350 seats,” he said. “We are excited, and we are ready to pack the house!”