Weekender

Penn State School of Theatre program connects students with Broadway

From left: Broadway performers Eric William Morris and Lauren Marcus and Penn State students Joseph Allen and Samantha Littleford pose with New York City writer Joe Iconis, who has worked with the Penn State musical theater program since last spring.
From left: Broadway performers Eric William Morris and Lauren Marcus and Penn State students Joseph Allen and Samantha Littleford pose with New York City writer Joe Iconis, who has worked with the Penn State musical theater program since last spring. Photo provided

Students involved in the Penn State School of Theatre now have an opportunity like none other — to assist in creating a musical inspired by their very own talents, and then see that musical come to life on the stage.

While the program is in its inaugural year and still working out the kinks, the premise is simple. The program commissions New York City writers to craft a musical specifically for the senior class.

It all kicked off last spring, when the current writer, Joe Iconis, visited campus and met the group of students he’d be working with. Over the course of a weekend, Iconis not only explored the university, but also State College itself, before heading back to New York to write a brand-new musical inspired by the talents and artistry of each individual participant.

During the fall semester, he returned with a partial first draft, which the students have been working on throughout the academic year, with Iconis attending classes and rehearsals to assist.

“This commissioning program is a way we can bring new writers and new musicals to our students,” said John Simpkins, who is the head of musical theater at Penn State.

“There’s a very specific skill set that an actor needs to work on new material ... it not only requires their training and talent, but it requires their ability to invest in a new piece with their own humanity and that’s not the easiest thing to just know how to do, so I was very eager to add that component to our curriculum.”

As one might imagine, the students are excited to participate in such a groundbreaking new program. Simpkins said that it’s rare for students to not only have the opportunity to create a role from scratch, but also work alongside a writer, taking advantage of all the contacts and experience such a professional as Iconis brings to the table.

Simpkins said that Iconis was an easy pick, as one of the hottest writers in New York at the moment, for both the students’ age bracket and contemporary rock ’n’ roll musical theater.

Despite all the hard work that’s been put into the project, however, don’t expect to see the full production any time soon. With the average new musical in development for up to eight years before hitting the stage, the incubation period can be a long and arduous one. That doesn’t mean that State College theater fans will be left wanting, though. Iconis and the students will be premiering some scenes and songs from the musical, which is set in an early 1960s female juvenile hall, in New York City this month at 54 Below, the popular venue for Broadway writers, performers and directors. Anyone can attend the event, which takes place Jan. 28, with performances at 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Tickets are available at www.54below.com.

For something a little closer to home, the show’s first reading will be held April 26 at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center. At this time, students will read and sing through the entire musical, right before graduating from the department. Agreements have been made to allow Penn State the option to produce the show in full at a later date, with another class. As time goes on, the yearly program will allow for a revolving lineup of commissioned writers, in-progress new musicals and thrilling, never-before-seen productions.

“Our hope, my hope certainly, is that 10 years down the road Penn State has added 10 musicals to the American musical canon,” Simpkins said. “How exciting for us in State College to be able to say that we were on the front edge of adding musicals to the canon forever.”

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