Staging Hope: After arduous pandemic school year, Aspen High students stage hopeful musical for live audience
What: ‘Songs for a New World,’ presented by Aspen High School
Where: Aspen District Theatre
When: Friday, May 14 through Sunday, May 16
How much: $10/students; $15/adults
More info: Limited seating; masks required for audience members
What: ‘Songs for a New World’ streaming online
When: May 20-22, 6 p.m. nightly
After a 2020 cancellation, an often-disrupted school year and 14 months of pandemic life, Aspen High School’s annual musical is back, live and in-person. With distanced seating for 200, the curtain goes up Friday in the Aspen District Theatre for four live performances followed by three nights of streamed online shows.
Students began distanced and masked rehearsals in January, when the coronavirus infection rate was spiking locally and the return of live theater seemed a long way away. Five months later, with vaccines out, infections down and most public health restrictions dropped, Aspen High School will open its production of “Songs for a New World,” crossing a finish line few could envision this spring.
“It has been an uphill battle,” theater teacher and director Logan Carter said. “We’ve been told, ‘You can’t do it,’ ‘You shouldn’t do it,’ ‘Nobody else is doing it.’ ‘Just let this one go,’ ‘Take a year off.’ And I can’t do that. These kids, this is what they live for. They love this.”
THE NEW WORLD
Last year, the high school musical was canceled on opening night.
The 2020 production of “Guys and Dolls” had been scheduled to open on Thursday, March 12. School officials canceled hours before, as the first COVID-19 outbreaks hit Aspen and the school district began what would become a long pandemic closure.
Acting superintendent Tom Heald allowed students to let the show go on that night, but with no audience other than parents, and record both casts for an online audience (more than 1,600 people tuned in on YouTube the first night via GrassRoots TV).
They didn’t know it then, but that was the last time any of the students would be at school for the academic year and beyond.
“These kids were completely robbed of their production last year due to COVID,” said Carter, “and they were devastated.”
Students opposed doing a filmed performance or a virtual show for 2021. So Carter committed, along with the stalwart student actors and crewmembers, that if there was a COVID-safe way to stage a musical for an audience, they would do it.
“Since the start of the school year it’s been my number one goal to get some kind of show on its feet,” said junior Eliza Domingos, also president of the school’s theater club.
Carter recalled her first meeting, via Zoom, with new superintendent David Baugh after he was hired last spring while Colorado was still under strict stay-home orders: “My first question was, ‘Hi, how are we going to do a show?'”
It was far down the list of school district priorities, of course. But Carter kept pushing.
“He was trying to support me,” she said of Baugh. “But nobody really had answers.”
So Carter kept up on the evolving public health restrictions for the varied levels of infection levels into the fall, she met regularly with officials herself, and talked to colleagues in the theater world about staging COVID-safe productions for teens.
The school had originally planned to produce “Into the Woods” this spring, but distancing limits alone were an impediment to pulling it off.
So she hunted for musicals that would fit the bill. By December it was clear to Carter that “Songs for a New World” was perfect, not only for its lean and distance-friendly production and small cast, but for its message.
“I had no idea that this show was about our world right now,” Carter said.
Its original pop and jazz songs are largely unconnected. They tell the stories of dreamers, sailors, even a resentful Mrs. Claus alone at the North Pole. There is no dialogue. It’s all sung in concert style. Yet, castmemebers agreed, it is very much about this trying and historic pandemic moment.
“It’s about now,” senior Ella Joseph said. “It’s our story.”
Brown has said of this early musical and its tales of hope and perseverance, “it’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.”
Most recently revived in a 2018 Off-Broadway production, “Songs for a New World” debuted in 1995 with Brown himself on piano and Billy Porter leading the original cast. Aspen High’s rendition will also literally tell students stories. Between songs it will include video testimonials and monologues on a big screen at the rear of the stage, with students telling of pivotal moments from the pandemic experience.
Many of its songs seem to have been written for young people navigating this global tragedy, finding a way forward after the societal upheavals of 2020 and the pandemic. It has songs about arduous journeys like “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” and about uplifting people in a crisis like “Hear My Song,” and songs about unconditional love like “I’d Give it All For You” and songs about connection that speak to our no-touch, hand-sanitized distances like “Flying Home” (“reach out your hand/And I’ll be flying home/Straight into your arms”).
“The songs are so healing for all of us recovering from such a traumatic and isolating year,” Carter said.
The cast recorded their vocals for the show, allowing them to perform masked and closer together while lip-syncing. At the outset, Carter asked students to pledge to be safe and to be adaptable as they navigated the pandemic production.
“I said, ‘Look guys, I don’t know what it’s going to look like,'” Carter recalled. “But if you’re committed, and you’re in it, I need you. I need you to commit and I need you to be flexible, and I need you to know that it could change every week what the plan is. And if you’re not OK with that, there’s the door.'”
“It did change every week,” Carter said. “But we did decide to go full steam ahead on a full live performance in the District Theatre with masks on.”
They began in-person rehearsals months earlier than usual, anticipating closures and quarantines — which by then had become common for local students.
“We had to be proactive because it was like, ‘How many times are we going to get shut down?'” Carter said. “How many weeks of rehearsal are we going to lose if we get quarantined?'”
There haven’t been any group quarantines necessary for the cast and crew, Carter said. One student in the cast did test positive for COVID-19 this spring, but it did not spread to others. The fact that it didn’t spread made Carter confident the theater department’s strict COVID-19 protocols had worked.
As vaccines rolled out in late 2020, Carter pushed the run of the musical back two months from its traditional mid-March slot — banking on infection rates and public health restrictions loosening before opening night (and allowing for the possibility of an outdoor performance, if necessary). When they began, they planned to have no more than four performers on stage at a time, all spaced 25 feet apart. As rehearsals progressed, the local public health crisis waned and the distance mandate dropped from 25 feet to 10 feet to six.
Last month, they were cleared by school, state and county public health officials to put on the show. On April 14, Carter sent an email to all of the school district’s teachers and staff. It began: “It’s happening!”
As of this week, all 14 members of the cast are cleared to perform on stage together.
Castmembers recalled early rehearsals, held in a stairwell on campus, practicing and perfecting the complex harmonies of songs like “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492.” Joining voices in harmony, after so much isolation during the pandemic, felt like victory in itself.
“It was emotional,” said Ella Joseph. “Just that feeling of the voices and the harmonies. It was like, ‘My god, we have a show. This is going to be incredible.'”
Added senior Vitoria Sieders: “It’s very particular to what I experienced during the pandemic — it just transformed me when I listened to everyone sing.”
‘WHERE I BELONG’
A high school musical is never really about the show itself, but about the commitment and work that students put in to get there. That’s truer than ever in the pandemic school year.
“Even though it’s like been a hard year, I think being in the show and having this community has also helped me through it,” Dangler said.
Domingos hopes the production can set an example for the wider Aspen community as it reopens and that audiences might find inspiration in the students’ work.
“With this show, people can see how theater can change lives, and can contribute to society and contribute a message to everyone in the community,” she said. “I hope it teaches people that you can truly find a community that suits you and that can become your family.”
Students learned new depths of compassion and how to support one another this academic year, they said. Talking to a visitor backstage at a recent rehearsal, when once castmember began to weep, another reflexively took their hand without hesitation. Talking through the creative process, they snapped their fingers in agreement with one another and easily tossed off genuine compliments — appearing to have shed the standard cutthroat theater-kid competitiveness and teen selfishness.
In their final week of rehearsals, the students set up jars with each cast and crewmembers’ names on them. During downtime, they write notes of support for one another, to be opened after opening night.
For cast and crewmembers who were in remote learning, rehearsal was often the only in-person outlet they had with their peers. The stage, for many, provided freedom from computer screens and pandemic anxieties.
“Being on-stage is the one place where I feel comfortable to be myself 100%,” said junior Adriana Cipponeri.
“Theater is my safe space,” added junior Emma Boucher. “It’s a place where I found my family and found where I belong. It’s what I want to pursue as a career and my future. Just being able to come back to this and come back to these people has been incredible.”