Last year, an inaugural musical theater program kicked off at Penn State, one in which students work with Broadway-caliber writers to create a show completely their own — inspired by their own talents and written with their own individual parts in mind.
The first show to come out of this program is “Love in Hate Nation” by Joe Iconis, which, according to John Simpkins, head of musical theater at Penn State, “had a very successful first concert reading” last April at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center. While this concert reading was the last stage of the process for the senior musical theater class for whom the show was originally written, Simpkins said he “had so much faith in the show and in the writer” that they programmed a full production of the show at Penn State for this year, with shows running Tuesday through Feb. 24.
“We are so thrilled to have this first full production be at Penn State — it is exactly the kind of new musicals experience we want to provide our students,” Simpkins said. “They have been working with Joe Iconis, Jennifer Werner (the choreographer — who is also the resident director of Broadway’s ‘The Book of Mormon’), Jennifer Ashley Tepper (the dramaturge — who is also director of programming at 54 Below and a celebrated Broadway producer and author) and Charlie Rosen (the orchestrator — who regularly orchestrates for Broadway shows each season). Having this level of talent join our Penn State creative team has made for a piece of Broadway working with our students in central Pennsylvania.”
The road from last year’s initial reading to this month’s performance hasn’t been without its challenges, though.
“Like any new musical early in its development, there have been significant changes over the past year,” Simpkins said. “One character has been cut completely, one has been added and others have undergone huge changes as they evolve and the script grows. Joe is the kind of writer who doesn’t ever fear change, so we have each been asking tough questions of each other and the piece for a year now and the result is a much more specific and powerful story line and experience.”
The biggest show change, Simpkins said, involved a deepening of the story line between Susannah, a young black girl in 1962, and Sheila, the girl she develops feelings for inside a juvenile hall for girls in Connecticut. Other changes are with the set itself.
“One of the more recent changes that the Penn State production has offered us is the chance to look at the scenic environment of the show as a more immersive experience,” Simpkins said. “The audience sits onstage with the actors and will hopefully feel like they are inside a juvenile hall for girls in 1962. It has freed us to really embrace the world of this show, which like any Iconis show, is part rock ’n’ roll, part musical theater and all heart.”
While “Love in Hate Nation” is well underway, other up-and-coming classes of Penn State musical theater students have been working alongside their own writers to produce shows fitted to their particular talents. The second show to come out of the program is “The Last Day,” currently being written by Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger.
Simpkins says the duo is much different from Iconis, but that he “commissioned them because (he) thought they would best evoke the spirit and artistry of this year’s senior musical theater class.”
“The Last Day” focuses on a setting close to home, centering around “a musical theater ensemble of students at a prominent university.”
The students recently performed scenes and songs from the musical at 54 Below in New York City, to huge success, and a full concert reading of the show is schedule for Penn State’s Downtown Theatre on April 19.
While the current seniors are working on “The Last Day,” current juniors are just meeting their own writer, as they prepare for their own personalized show. This class’s writer is Kirsten Childs, award-winning creator of “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” and “Bella: An American Tall Tale.”
“She is one of the few female musical theater writers of color and, like everywhere in the musical theater, we talk at Penn State all the time about making sure shows and roles moving forward in our canon do not leave out African Americans or limit their roles to a stereotypical place that traditional musicals sometimes have done through the years,” Simpkins said.
Childs visited Penn State last month to meet the juniors and get to know the 10 individuals.
“Over the coming weeks, I will be discussing ideas with Kirsten on where the musical might land,” Simpkins said, “and I’m so excited to see where her vision will take the project.”
IF YOU GO
- What: Penn State Centre Stage’s “Love in Hate Nation”
- When: Tuesday-Feb. 24
- Where: Playhouse Theatre, University Park
- Info: theatre.psu.edu