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Musical Theater, Brought to You By Oberlin Cross Country

September 3, 2011

Joe Dawson ’12

I mentioned it last time, but I will mention it again: I spent last week at cross country camp, an annual adventure out to Cuyahoga Valley National Park with about 60 excited runners. Camp involves (predictably) running, pushups and crunches, cooking our own meals, and (even more predictably) an original musical, written and performed by the runners. The running is fun and team-y, a relief after a summer of running alone for most of us. We run on the trails in the National Park and on the old Tow Path next to the train tracks, scenic and pastoral, but low on sex appeal. Now the main event of camp has my old friend sex appeal in spades. It is the Musical, and it is guaranteed to give you what you need. Jacob, Tino and I volunteered to be the writers and organizers this year, and after three years of Musicals that involved epic quests, we decided to go a different direction. We wanted to make a story with three intersecting story lines, which happens to be the structure of a very popular improv 'form,' the Harold. Think Love Actually, if you have to, to get the picture. Now stop.

It may be an opportune time to mention that, prior to coming to camp, I rediscovered my love for musical theater after viewing a Mid-Missouri production of The Fantasticks with my childhood friend Will (mentioned before here) as the male lead. With "Try to Remember" playing in my head, I was determined to make this Musical on par with any of those trifles from Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Bono & The Edge.

Before the Musical was written, everyone on the team was assigned a role. We got to camp Wednesday afternoon, and on Wednesday night we had everyone on the team write down a character on a slip of paper, and put the slips into a hat. These characters range from real characters from literature like Tom Sawyer and Oscar the Grouch to inanimate objects (Jacob played a bidet our freshman year) to weird team in-jokes like 'Matt Bernstein as Simba in 2nd Grade,' which came from a story Matt told about how he refused to get in the pool during swim lessons unless the teacher called him Simba. Every person on the team got a role by pulling a character out of the hat. With such an interesting mix of characters, the plots get pretty weird in our Musicals. Last year's title: The Orphan Salsa Dancer's Epic Journey To Stop the BP Oil Spill With His Sidekick, Jason Mraz.

At this point, it became the job of a number of team members to write a fully-functioning Musical with a 60-person cast. I was one of those team members last year and this one, and I think we bit off enough that chewing was nearly a problem this time around. When the Musical's storyline is a simple one, it's easy to explain it to people and ask someone else to write a song for some scene ('writing a song' involves changing the lyrics to a well-known song, more Weird Al than Paul Simon). With the way we structured the Musical this year it was a little more difficult to tell people exactly what was going on ("So, Oscar the Grouch just came from the presidential debate with a frog and R. Kelly when he realized he was really in love with Julia. After talking to Blanche DuBois he's rushing to Kate Middleton and Justin Bieber's wedding to find her before she drowns herself. I don't know exactly what's happening at the wedding, because that's Tino's part of the story. You want to write a song about that?"*). Anyway, we made it hard for anyone to help us out, even if they wanted to. One of our dumber moves.

Saturday afternoon came around, and the Musical was going up that night. Jacob, Tino, and I holed up in a building behind our bunkhouse with the team musicians Tim (guitar and banjo), Margaret (mandolin and guitar), Jimmy (ukulele and lots more), and Leo (a dynamite first-year trumpet player). We worked out the songs we had written, and kept writing until dinner time, around 6:30. During this time, a few team members came back to see us and offer help. We had been writing nonstop for hours, and it hadn't occurred to us that other people could help us recopy scripts or help in any way, simply because we were so competent. We were grateful for the help.

The Musical was set for 8:00 that night, and we hadn't actually met with any of the actors to discuss their parts or songs they would have to sing in an hour and a half, so we used the 45 minutes before the show to do just that. This is a time when people are running around trying to outfit themselves in whatever attire they can scrounge up (David, playing the role of 'All 3 Mighty Ducks Movies,' duct-taped two tree limbs together to make a hockey stick and made a mask out of aluminum foil) and we had to find all our principals and do hasty run-throughs at the same time we were getting into costumes ourselves. High blood-pressure fun, I assure you.

You may be getting a mental picture of what the Musical looks like. It is in no way polished or well-rehearsed. That's the way we like it. Everyone dresses up for their parts, often with little or no idea about what their character will be doing in the show. In years past we've at least been able to practice the songs with the people who were singing them and give people an outline of exactly whom they are supposed to be in love with, but preparations, much like books, are for nerds.

The Musical went off with as many hitches as you would expect from such a production. It was a comic, lyrical, heartwarming extravaganza, with an ending that some critics/coaches have described as 'Shakespearean.' I think I exhaled finally about thirty minutes after it was all over. I will miss it next year. Oh boy, senior warning. You may hear stuff like "I'm gonna miss..." a lot from me this year. I'll try to lock that down.

*Very much an accurate description of part of the show.

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