OU Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre students are trading in their tap shoes for masks and protest signs in their interpretation of “Songs for a New World” — addressing timely issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 in a pandemic-friendly production.
Following the cancellation of “Legally Blonde,” OU’s School of Musical Theatre chose to change its production to maintain a smaller cast size and COVID-19 cautionary measures. “Songs for a New World” was the perfect fit, as its concert style set-up and small cast is flexible and doesn’t require close contact, Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre director and show director Ashton Byrum said.
“It became clear that if we were going to choose a new title it has to be doable with all of the precautions, it has to be a show the students would love and it has to not be a tone deaf choice,” Byrum said. “This is a concert style show that doesn’t involve a lot of scenic design — what a great time to be able to do something immediately in response to what is going on in the world.”
The idea surrounding the production, Byrum said, is the intimate cast of 6 actors and actresses are fighting for the new world they want to create. Byrum double casted the production, meaning two students play one role during different performances, and added roles so the cast of 13 could include as many voices as possible.
“People of status are normally portrayed as white people, and some people of status in this particular cast are BIPOC … (which was) super intentional,” Byrum said. “I was conscientious about casting and making sure the cast looks like the world is.”
Musical theater senior and Mexico City native Gonzalo Aburto de la Fuente’s character, for example, participates in a Black Lives Matter protest with the cast toward the beginning of the production. Each student was allowed to make their own protest sign with a message that was personal to them, and he said immigration was one of the first things that came to mind.
“Something that was very important to me was bringing in a little bit about immigration during the protest,” Aburto de la Fuente said. “So my sign says ‘no human being is illegal,’ because I figured it kind of fits a little bit of both.”
Students’ ability to draw on their own backgrounds and apply them onstage is seen in Aburto de la Fuente’s character, who decides to break up with his girlfriend who is living in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant. He said watching her convey her hope for the new world, which is to avoid deportation, is deeply personal to him as an international student.
“I’m not technically either a resident or citizen, so if I were to get in any legal issues, I would lose my Visa and get deported,” Aburto de la Fuente said. “That was one of the things I said … I’m going to go out there, fight and put my life and future on the line for something that I care about. That’s what this feels like. I am willing to give and risk it all for these issues.”
The show also follows the story of a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients. Musical theater sophomore Sydney Jones said being able to play this character has allowed her to see the hope medical professionals bring during this health crisis.
“In my song ‘Christmas Lullaby,’ she’s expressing how she feels — like how all of her hard work and all of the tough days are going to pay off in the end,” Jones said. “She’s doing this for the future of the world. … She’s the little glimmer of hope through all of the darkness.”
Aburto de la Fuente said Byrum stressed the importance of humanizing stories and making audiences see the characters as real people during the show’s rehearsal process. Byrum said these real people serve as a symbol of hope to audiences — encouraging them to look at the problems our world faces and move beyond them.
“It’s a privilege to tell stories about protest, systemic racism, same sex marriage and COVID-19 — and I think it all has a great theme of hope,” Byrum said. “There was even a lyric in the very last number that says ‘we’ll be fine,’ and I’m so glad I get to hear that because we all need to be reassured and move forward with some of the knowledge this show is discussing and investigating.”
The burden of conveying weighty topics is made even more difficult with COVID-19 precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing during rehearsals and performances, Byrum said. Aburto de la Fuente said the audience's inability to see their faces has forced the cast to focus intently on how they emote while performing.
“It has really changed the way I use my body and the way I try to use my voice so you can hear it,” Aburto de la Fuente said. “With a pandemic … trying to put a face to the name with people is very complicated and hard. But I think we are managing to make sure that we are still relatable and remember to make an impact.”
Intimacy has also been a challenge, Jones said, as her character sings a romantic duet with another one of her cast members. Her performance, she said, was extremely experimental as she had to figure out a way to convey closeness without touch.
“One thing that really changed was, at the end, we fall to our knees and we’re on the same level of the ground,” Jones said. “That was just really cool — seeing how much that changed the dynamic between us while still being safe. It’s just a lot about physicality and sharing energy, because it’s hard to have intimacy when we can’t actually be close to each other.”
Actors and actresses will not only be further from one another, but also from the audience.
In-person performances will seat 150 people 25 feet away from the stage with strict social distancing measures in Holmberg Hall. The hall’s ventilation systems have been upgraded recently to exchange air every 15 minutes, Byrum said.
The show will also be live-streamed for individuals who cannot attend or do not feel comfortable attending the show. Aburto de la Fuente said this option is extremely meaningful to him because he has family who lives in Mexico that will get to see him perform for the first time since he was about eight.
“It has always been like, ‘Oh, I wish they could come see the show’ — but traveling, making sure they can stay in a hotel and all of these expenses is just not fair to try and ask someone to go through,” Aburto de la Fuente said. “Having the opportunity to be live-streamed is something the pandemic has changed theater for the better.”
Jones said participating in “Songs for a New World has reminded her of the importance of theater — especially in telling stories that reflect what is going on in the world. She said she hopes people will be excited to be back in the theater, reminded of the feeling of being an audience and leave moved by the show’s message.
“This is about human beings … (and) the ways our needs have been neglected for not just these past four years, but since this country was built,” Aburto de la Fuente said. “I’m just hoping that by having this show … audiences will realize we are all in this world together and we should be looking out for the better of the general public — not just our individual needs.”
“Songs for a New World” opened Sept. 25 and will have additional performances at 8 p.m. Oct. 1–3 and at 3 p.m. Oct. 4. A livestream performance will be available at 8 p.m. Oct. 8 on this website.
Tickets can be purchased in advance for $30 by phone at 405-325-4101 and at the OU Fine Arts Box Office. Advance discount tickets for individuals who are 60 years or older or under 18 are $25 and advance student tickets are $10.
Adult tickets are $40 and $15 for students at the door.
Aburto de la Fuente said he has seen so many people around him preach about the importance of using their voices in times of civil unrest. Although the message is positive, Aburto de la Fuente feels it to be redundant due to the lack of change he sees around him.
He hopes this production will remind people of the importance of being the change they want to see.
“Over the summer, everyone was talking about the color of your skin and saying you need to use that, get out on the front end and make sure you’re protecting those who cannot protect themselves,” Aburto de la Fuente said. “With it being an election year, I hope people see this and open their eyes and ears to realize this is so far beyond political lines and parties.”