BWW Interview: Tara Whitman of BRIGHT STAR at West Orange High School
West Orange High School Theatre kicks off their season with the high school premiere of BRIGHT STAR. Written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the musical follows the story of Alice Murphy at two different points of her life. I talked with director Tara Whitman about premiering the show, the live band, staging, and more!
BWW: You're the first high school to ever do BRIGHT STAR! Tell me what that's been like.
TW: Getting to be the first h.s. to do the show has been an honor. I haven't encountered too many challenges, however there have been times where I've had a question that I cannot answer by searching the show. It was really important to me that I honored the production that ended too soon on Broadway. The branding, style, simplicity, etc have not changed. There is no need to reinvent. However, there were adjustments made to accommodate a larger cast. All-in-all I just feel moved to be able to share a story that I always felt deserved more exposure. I hope that my audiences are growing because the theatre community and normal population are curious to watch a piece of new material!
BWW: Steve Martin had to make rewrites to the script before rehearsals started. Tell me about that.
TW: As with many shows after they close, the creative takes another glance at the material to determine if changes could help the story. Rewrites to the "Bright Star" were made after the Broadway cast present a live concert version last December. As I have been told, the writers realized that the music stands on its own and set out to skim a little off of the scenes. There aren't too many besides a major change of placement for one of my favorite songs, "Sun's Gonna Shine." My contact from the licensing company [Theatrical Rights Worldwide], Jim Hoare had mentioned that the script was being written and he would share it with me as soon as it was finished. This was during the process of waiting to be given the rights, nothing was concrete. For a few months he told me this. I believed and trusted Jim but began to worry that the timeline of presenting the show now (Fall 2017) was going to fall far behind. One day in early July, when I was really starting to think that I may have to consider placing "Bright Star" in the spring or in a future year, OR stop waiting for it all together, I received an email from Jim. Subject line: Bright Star script, and a message "Steve Martin and Edie Brickell sent the script this week. A copy is attached."
BWW: What are the challenges of having a live band onstage?
TW: The challenges with the live band are that I have no budget. My administration is extremely supportive of my program but we don't get funds allotted towards show. My students raise every penny that we invest into our shows. I knew that I needed a live band, the music in "Bright Star" IS a character, a role. Luckily we've had volunteers who have loved getting to be some of the first to play Steve and Edie's (I know I am not on a first basis with either of these phenomenal musicians but the show just makes me feel so close to them--it is so honestly written) score. We've also pulled a few 'strings'-a fiddle, viola, and cello player to be exact-from our school orchestra program (Director: Ken Boyd).
Once we solidified our nine piece band, under direction of John deHaas, we had to figure out how we wire their instruments, amps, and microphones wirelessly since they move around the stage.
Finally, perhaps it shouldn't have been an afterthought, I had to cross my fingers that none of them got motion sick.
BWW: Where did you draw your inspiration from for the staging and choreography?
TW: I retained a lot of style and influence from seeing the show on Broadway. Director Walter Bobbie's work truly made an impression on me. Other than that, a lot of staging and choreography just comes instinctually. I start with research-time period, style, etc. then I create. (Including all my technicians who have flawlessly recreated a similar look to the Broadway set, featuring an operational model train, designed by student CameRon Hayes.) I always keep the possibility of change open because the actors can sometimes influence my choices based on their abilities and skills. Even student performers have an influence. This cast has done a phenomenal job. The leads: Kassidy Weideman (Alice Murphy), Alex Mohr (Jimmy Ray), Matt Guernier (Billy), Ava Cassatta (Margo), Patrick duChene (Darryl) and Jessie Roddy (Lucy) are strong and backed by an company with just-as-much strength.
This show was fun to choreograph since it involved 'real world' dancing (the Couple's Dance). In this 1920s scene I got to feature a dance style that I am very familiar with but not too many others are, country clogging (hillbilly tap dancing). As a clogger I was so impressed when the Broadway choreographer, Josh Rhoades, had included it and I knew I would too! There are also many rhythm creation pieces for this I collaborated with my student Assistant Choreographer, Jessie Roddy. To be honest, she created most of that stuff and did it beautifully. This is my second year using students to choreograph or assist on our musicals. This is how I got my start in theatre, high school musical choreographer, and I am so proud to watch students learn about the art.
BWW: What do you hope the audience takes away from the show?
TW: If audiences leave enchanted by the story line and insisting that they're buying the Broadway soundtrack then I've done my job. This story needs to be heard and shared and honored and embraced. It is my privilege to help share it. I have seen nothing but pride on my students' faces when promoting and performing this show. As their teacher, I cannot describe how this makes me feel. There is no bigger reward. Although, I would accept a group hug from Steve Martin, Edie Brickell, Walter Bobbie and Carmen Cusack (original Alice Murphy).
BRIGHT STAR runs at West Orange High School through October 15. For more information, visit wohstheatre.com.