One chilly J-Term evening, I found myself walking 20 minutes down the hill from my dorm into the cozy town of Middlebury. I shuffled into the picturesque red-brick Town Hall Theater and sat among students and members of the community alike in the theater’s beautiful auditorium. The audience hummed with excitement as the music started for the last showing of the J-Term Musical.
This year’s show, presented by Town Hall Theater and the Middlebury Department of Music, was the 1989 musical “City of Angels.” The show ran Jan. 27-30. Douglas Anderson, executive director of the Town Hall Theater, directed the musical, and Carol Christensen, affiliate artist in the College’s Department of Music, directed music. The duo is tried and true; this was their 12th J-Term Musical together. The show featured a live pit band and an expansive production crew of both students and Town Hall Theater staff.
The J-Term Musical is a unique opportunity for students to mix academics with performance. Most of the students involved with the production receive credit for their work as part of the J-Term class “Music 103: The American Musical in Production.” The course is taught by Anderson, Christensen and Bear Irwin, who teaches trombone lessons at the College.
After a mere 18 days, the show’s cast and crew put on a full-length musical. For those who don’t speak theater, this is an incredible feat. Musicals typically take months to put on, which, in part, is what makes the J-Term Musical so remarkable. The cast worked extremely hard throughout the semester to get the show ready for its debut weekend. Rehearsals took place twice a day, from 1-4 p.m. and again from 7-10 p.m.
“Putting on this huge show in such a short amount of time was a real exercise in professionalism,” said Sebastian LaPointe ’18, who played Stone. “No other show at Middlebury requires so much of its actors. I had to show up every day, ready to do the job and ready to have a lot of fun doing it. Fortunately this company of great people made having fun everyday an inevitability, so it was a pleasure having them along for the ride.”
Some may think that putting on a show under such a time crunch is unnecessarily stressful or crazy, but the four-week nature of J-Term actually lends itself to a uniquely productive and focused rehearsal process.
“J-term is the perfect time to do the musical,” said Christensen, who has been an integral part of the J-Term Musical for years. “It allows the students to concentrate very intensively on the project without having to worry about getting assignments done for other classes. It’s more like the real world of music theater, in that once we add the dialogue, blocking, band and technical elements, we have only 18 days to get the show together before opening night.”
Olivia Christie ’19, who played Gabby/Bobbi, agreed, adding that the short-term nature of the show was invigorating.
“What’s nice about it is that there is nothing else you have to focus on, so the show is your only commitment. I was able to give my all to the show and I think in the end it pays off,” she said “The other nice thing about such a short amount of time for rehearsal is that it all stays fresh. There’s not enough time to settle into one way of acting or singing, so I stayed on my toes every night. I think that spawns this really cool, playful, energetic feeling that can get lost when there’s more time to get comfortable. It definitely puts you outside of your comfort zone, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
In addition to being put on in an extremely short amount of time, “City of Angels” had its own challenges as a musical. The show’s plot functions as a movie within a play, and revolves around the misadventures and work of Stine (Michael Koutelos ’20), an author in the process of moving his stories onto the silver screen of 1940s Hollywood. Throughout the show, Stine is at odds with Buddy Fidler (Connor Pisano ’18), the producer/director of the movie who forces the reluctant Stine to change the screenplay so that the end result hardly resembles the original. The other main character of the film is Stone (LaPointe), a detective caught in the middle of crime scene antics and drama-filled romance.
The show frequently switches between Stine’s Hollywood struggles and the action of Stine’s book-turned-movie itself. Stine and Stone’s lives intersect at various points, and the women in their lives alternate between worlds of reality and fiction. Many actors doubled as characters from Stine and Stone’s respective worlds, including Christie, playing Gabby/Bobbi, Liana Barron ’18, playing Donnie/Oolie, Samantha Allman ’17, playing Carla Haywood/Alaura Kingsley and Fink ’18, playing Avril/Mallory Kingsley. The duality these actors masterfully expressed demonstrated the striking intersections between the storylines, and effectively blurred the lines between reality and fantastical cinema.
While the story is set in a time that is both realistically and cinematically distant from present-day Hollywood, the show’s actors still found ways to connect to the characters and story.
“As an avid fan of film noir and jazz, I felt a deep connection to this show,” said LaPointe, who looked at classic film noir detectives like Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd and Orson Wells to get into the genre.
“I felt a particularly deep connection with my character because of the time I spent studying film noir before J-Term. After a while, it became clear that cynicism was key for Stone. If I wanted to become Stone, I would need to become a cynic first. Once I took this pivotal step, it was all about peeling away the veneer of my own life, until that of my character had taken hold. When Stone finally got his hooks in me, we took quite a ride.”
Christie, who played two different characters in the show, worked with very multifaceted roles for her performance.
“Bobbi is this tragic character who wants so badly to be famous and ruins her life because of it,” she said. “Gabby is this powerful businesswoman who is continually brought back to her jerk husband because of love. I spent some serious time thinking about how to best connect to these women and decided that love was what fueled them. Love for their art, love for their significant other, but lack of love for themselves. The both of them do a lot of searching for self in the show and I found that angle to be particularly compelling.”
The music in the show also tested the resolve of the cast.
“Being as the musical is a co-production between the Town Hall Theater and the Music Department, Doug and I chose ‘City of Angels’ for its musical complexity,” said Christensen. “The music for the Angel City Five, the jazz quintet in our production [including Kate Allman ’17, Sam Boudreau ’19, Jack DesBois ’19, Fink and Jessie Kuzmicki ’19], is particularly demanding in its close harmonies, difficult intervals and often lickety-split tempi.”
Christensen also commented on how the show offered unique elements that have been explored less in previous years’ musicals, among which are “Chicago” and “Les Misérables.”
“Most of the musicals Doug Anderson and I have done in the past are ‘sung-through’ musicals that involve little or no spoken dialogue, plus we’ve often done musicals with a large vocal ensemble component, and often a large dance presence. ‘City of Angels’ was quite a departure, being as it has a smaller cast, a much smaller ensemble element, virtually no dance and lots of spoken dialogue. It was a good opportunity for our students to hone not only their Broadway singing skills, but also to work with Doug on their line interpretation and delivery.”
“The music was so difficult,” added Christie. “The notes were all over the place: huge jumps, weird keys, difficult rhythms. My character Gabby/Bobbi had to sing some really low notes, but the finale number had her singing an octave about the tenor line. Basically, anything outrageous that could happen in jazz music probably happened in this show.”
As evidenced by the expansive age range of the show’s audience, the J-Term Musical offers a rare connection to the greater Middlebury community that can be hard to find in the College bubble. Especially during J-Term, when many students find it easier to stay cozied up in their beds with Netflix, the musical is an exceptional chance to connect to the community.
“The Town Hall Theater tech staff is made up of community members, and we’ll often invite some actors from the community to join us for various roles,” Christensen said. “It’s a wonderful town-gown activity.”
“Performing in the Town Hall Theater draws Middlebury community members, and they make up the majority of the audience and don’t have to go onto campus to see students perform,” Christie said. “It is this shared experience between the College and the town which doesn’t happen that often. The musical brings the show to them, in a way.”
And, of course, the show also forged bonds between members of the cast and crew.
“Students who enjoy music theater are some of the nicest people you’ll find on the planet,” Christensen said. “I really enjoy spending time with them and introducing them to the best scores in the genre. We work very diligently learning the notes and putting all the vocal elements together in our fall rehearsals (through sickness and in health), all while sharing a lot of really good times. If you’ve worked in theater, you know a special bond develops between cast and crew – a ‘theater family,’ if you will. This is especially true with the students in the musical, as we work so energetically together from September until the end of January. I become very close with the students – I want to thank them for all they have done, and let them know that I love them, and I will miss them.”