The bright lights of New York City — darkened by the pandemic — will be felt on Nebraska Wesleyan University’s O’Donnell Auditorium stage when the Theatre Department opens its first musical cabaret, “Fresh Voices.”
With much attention aimed at safe and socially distant live performances, the Theatre Department turned to its New York City connections to help inspire “Fresh Voices,” which will feature unproduced works by composers from the Big Apple.
Anne McAlexander, visiting assistant professor of musical theatre, utilized her connections to pair composers with NWU theatre students. Students participated in six zoom workshops that were led by artists including American playwright Laura Gunderson, America’s most produced living playwright; singer composer Ari Afsar who is best known for her starring role in “Hamilton,” jazz and rock musician Todd Sickafoose, a Tony and Grammy Award winner, among others.
“One of the most exciting things about this project is how our students are getting to interact with the composers and writers,” said McAlexander, a graduate of SUNY Fredoria who has directed and choreographed for several schools and festivals in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “Unless actors are workshopping a new musical, this is a rare and awesome opportunity.”
“Fresh Voices” showcases NWU students as emerging artists as they will be singing new and unproduced works. The title also gives a nod to the different perspectives on current challenges in society that will be featured in the music. Inspired by politics, societal unrest, and the pandemic among other themes, the cabaret will feature works inspired by the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, mental health, the need for compassion and unity, and voting and representation. The production will also include speaking roles written by Gunderson that were inspired by the NWU students’ personal stories.
Not only does this show amplify traditionally underrepresented voices in society, but the collaboration helps students recognize the vast possibilities of using their art for change,” said McAlexander.
“Several of the composers wrote pieces specifically for our students and their interests,” she said. “I think it is incredibly important for young actors to know that their voice matters and that when they have the chance, they should seize the opportunity.”
Raimy Washington, a senior acting major from Omaha, agrees.
“It is an artist’s responsibility to represent the times and these are quite the times to represent,” said Washington. “There is a lot going on in our world and who better to tell this story than artists who will put it in a format that makes it timeless.”
While COVID-19 has led the Theatre Department to adapt to new ways of performing, students recognize that the opportunity to collaborate with New York City composers likely would not have happened in this way without the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has helped us be able to work with so many different new artists that are so diverse in life experiences and identities,” said John Alden, a junior musical theatre major from Olathe, Kan.
“Not only is this experience desperately needed right now during a global pandemic when so many theatre artists are out of work,” McAlexander added, “but this experience is valuable in teaching our students how they can use their art to amplify their voices and bring attention to topics that are important to them.”
The Theatre Department continues to follow all directed health measures: audience members will be socially distanced and seated 15 feet away from the stage. All performances will be held in O’Donnell Auditorium — the university’s largest performance venue; masks are required for all audience members, and there will be no intermission.
Even though they’re not performing for sold-out crowds or utilizing large casts, students said the current circumstances are a lesson in adaptation.
“It is a crazy time for the arts,” said Washington who will graduate in December. “But I’m certain I will be doing something wherever I go even if that means I have to create my own opportunities.”
“Fresh Voices: Spotlighting the Future” will be performed October 23-24 and October 30-31 at 7:30 p.m. with matinee shows on October 25 and November 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7.50 and must be reserved in advance online or call the box office at 402.465.2384.
The collaborations and interactions with the New York City composers have been made possible through a generous grant from the Pace Woods Foundation. Since 2012, the Foundation has helped fund 11 musical theatre productions, 14 guest artist engagements and the New York City excursion typically taken during spring break.
—Story by Danielle Anderson, student writer