“A Day in The Life” – The Musical Theatre Studio, Spring 2014
An Eastside Community High School – Yip Harburg Foundation Collaboration
Spring semester 2014, East Side Community High School. A group of 11th and 12th graders spend four periods a week in a musical theatre studio led by The Yip Harburg Foundation. Resident Teaching Artists and theatre professionals, including Deena Harburg, executive producer, worked alongside the students to develop an original play written by both students and teachers. The final show, “A Day in the Life” was filled with songs taught to the students from the musical theatre cannon along with scenes and scenarios written and developed throughout the semester from the personal stories and lives of the students themselves.
Songs taught in class included a wide range of classic musical theatre tunes, to name a few: “Seasons of Love,” Rent; “If I Were a Rich Man,” Fiddler on the Roof; “Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart,” The Wizard of Oz; “Day by Day,” Godspell; “Hard Knock Life” and “Maybe,” Annie. The Musical Director of the class David Brunetti, author of “Acting Songs,” and a pro vocal and drama coach, was on hand every week, introducing material and encouraging authentic personalization to the material. Other theatrical skills were explored through theatre games and warm-up exercises that highlighted concentration, connection, and collaboration. These served to provide team building and confidence skills, all useful in a class, upon a stage, and indeed throughout their young adult lives.
Analyzed from both the performers and the audience’s perspectives, students looked at songs, their context and themes, then improvised their personal reactions, thus creating their own ‘moment-before’ each song, engaging students both thematically and emotionally with the text. Improvisation proved the basis through which teachers could organically introduce acting and singing techniques and theatrical forms. These improvisations then became the basis of scenes written out and integrated into “A Day in the Life.” The process of creating the play was wonderfully collaborative. The play was artistically unified and made the audience feel “a mystical connection,” (Aristotle) with the performers, play and each other.
For most of the students, “A Day in the Life” was their first experience performing onstage. Each student came a long way from the first day of class. These students were not your predictable musical drama enthusiasts. They were looking for an engaging, fun studio in an area they knew little about. Indeed they were taken on a journey of self-discovery and tangible achievement thanks to the foundation’s dedication to education through the arts.
One of the students, a repeat senior named Joshua Avalos (LJ), referenced the Musical Theatre Studio class at ESCHS’ graduation, as a life – changing experience. Now LJ enthusiastically works and volunteers at The Theatre for the New City located at 155 1st Ave, a block from ESCHS – in the same neighborhood, where nearly a century before, Yip Harburg had grown up among the rich, cultural diversity of Manhattan. Musical Theatre had lit up the imagination of a young boy raised in the impoverished melting pot of the Lower East Side, who then went on to write “The Wizard of Oz” lyrics and many more. Could Yip have anticipated that one day an unlikely, 19 year old kid would find himself singing in front of an audience for the first time in his life “Over the Rainbow?” the dark theatre filled with family, friends, and teachers collectively experiencing the pathos and magnetism of asking that timeless, universal question: “…why, oh why, can’t I?”