Jonathan Savage has just finished extemporizing on the finer points of Marty, the character he’ll play — debut, actually— in “The Last Day,” the most recent musical commissioned by the Penn State School of Theatre.
Marty, you’ll be relieved to know, is “just a fun dude” who likes to see the good in the world and possesses an abiding fondness for the cosmos and all things “Gone with the Wind.”
The last two qualities were cribbed directly from Savage. They’re how he identified his part from the list of character descriptions proliferated by writers Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger.
Prior to that moment Savage had been completely in the dark. There was no script to peruse, no pre-existing archetypes to hang any of his assumptions upon.
“Until I found Marty. Then I knew who I was playing,” he said.
The big idea behind the New Musicals Initiative is that instead of becoming yet another in a long line of Horace Vandergelders in yet another in a long line of collegiate productions of “Hello, Dolly!” Savage and 11 other seniors from the School of Theatre will get to hone their chops as professional-caliber muses.
I want young actors to have to understand what it’s like to have to work on new material.
“Marty” is still virgin terrain, new and unspoiled by other performers.
“I want young actors to have to understand what it’s like to have to work on new material,” John Simpkins, head of musical theater at Penn State, said.
He’s done this exactly once before, with last year’s “Love in Hate Nation.” Commissioned from musical writer Joe Iconis, the story used the backdrop of a 1960s juvenile hall for girls as a showcase for the talents of students who have since graduated and dispersed to various corners of the New York City theater scene.
This spring, the writer(s) commissioned for 2019’s musical will meet with juniors at the School of Theatre to begin developing ideas.
With any luck, the alchemy from that collaboration will yield something entirely different than “The Last Day,” which in turn is different from “Love in Hate Nation.”
“It’s our goal that the artists are somehow inspired by this specific group of young people,” Simpkins, who is also directing “The Last Day,” said.
Schlesinger and Reid had already loosely discussed the possibility of writing a musical about school violence when they met with their group of students early last year.
One sticking point? Reid was still wasn’t totally convinced that he would be involved.
Based out of Nashville, the singer/songwriter/musician/composer has returned to Penn State only a handful of times since graduating in 1970. University Park is where he caught the musical theater bug, a step up from the knee injury that temporarily sidelined him on the football field.
It’s been so nice to have been taken seriously.
Were Reid to get involved with the New Musicals Initiative, he wanted to deliver something more than a pleasant distraction. For that, the kids could have turned to any number established musicals, not an inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I’m intimidated by the possibility of disappointing these students,” Reid said.
Their energy eventually won him over, as did their commitment to doing something sufficiently meaningful — which is good because the story that Reid and Schlesinger eventually drafted for “The Last Day” follows a troubled young man at an elite musical theater program who takes a group of friends hostage while contemplating suicide.
Reid visited the students again in December to continue work on the music.
“It knocks about 30 years off of me when I’m around them,” Reid said.
Talia Suskauer plays Becca, a student in the fictitious musical theater program who’s recovering from an addiction to Adderall. Usually she gets all of the “mom” roles, the unintended consequence of being the oldest-looking young person in the room.
Suskauer has enjoyed the opportunity to mix it up, not to mention work with professional collaborators who treat her as a peer.
“It’s been so nice to have been taken seriously,” Suskauer said.
“The Last Day” will have a concert reading at 7:30 p.m. on April 19 at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center. A new production of “Love in Hate Nation” will run performances from Feb. 13-24 as part of the School of Theatre’s regular 2017-18 seasons.