The phrase “modern musical theater” evokes images of energetic stars performing in brightly-lit Broadway productions or famous actors and actresses singing passionately on the big screen. One classic film and later a Broadway show is known to many people today as one of the most popular musicals of all time. This year, St. Martin’s Episcopal School is presenting this fan-favorite in its spring musical production of “Grease.”
“Grease” is one of the most well-known and well-loved musicals since the film was released in 1978, so it is no surprise that the theater program at St. Martin’s received an influx of new cast members who wished to be a part of a play they had thought they’d only ever observe.
Senior Evan McCollum, a long-time member of the theater program, believes the familiarity and the popularity is one of the reasons why they gained many new actors and actresses.
“You can’t say no to ‘Grease,’” McCollum said. “We have a lot of new people and a large cast. A part of that is because it’s ‘Grease.’”
Director of Performing Arts Meredith Long-Dieth welcomes the changes and challenges that a new cast brings to the theater program. While the new members aren’t as experienced, they bring a new liveliness to the production.
“I do have to take the time to stop during rehearsal to explain things about process and subtext and (the actors’) intentions onstage,” Long-Dieth said. “It does slow down the process at times, but we’re having a lot of fun.”
McCollum believes the relationship between new and old actors is mutually beneficial and that people with differing levels of experience both bring important skills to the production.
“Sometimes (the new members) bring great ideas to the table that none of us would have thought about, and we have to sometimes impart our knowledge on them,” McCollum said. “It’s a learning experience for both people.”
wo high schoolers with past experience in theater decided to take to the stage again when “Grease” was chosen as the spring play. Junior Farah Wells, who participated in theater in lower school and middle school, joined the cast as a dancer and a member of the ensemble in order to participate in one of her favorite musicals. She enjoys the new friendships she’s been able to make in the theater community.
“I have an opportunity to talk to people I wouldn’t normally see,” Wells said. “I’ve developed different friendships I normally wouldn’t have, so that’s nice.”
Sophomore Tanner Sykes acted in plays in lower school and middle school and helped with the sound for the St. Martin’s productions of “Oliver!” and “The Importance of Being Ernest” during his high school career. This year, Sykes is joining the onstage crew of “Grease” as Sonny, one of the T-Birds.
“I enjoy the music of ‘Grease,’” Sykes said. “Hearing my favorite songs being brought to life by people that I know is pretty awesome.”
Sykes loves the entertainment aspect of being an onstage performer.
“I get to totally ham it up,” Sykes said. “It’s the 1950s. I get to do things with my hair; I have a comb and a leather jacket and sunglasses on. I look totally ridiculous.”
With the encouragement of his father and Long-Dieth, Junior Kyle Winkler, who has assisted with theater productions in previous years from backstage, decided to try out for an onstage role in “Grease.” Winkler will bring to life the character of Kenickie Murdoch, one of the lead T-Birds, and he believes being onstage is much different from being backstage.
“Everybody can see you, and there’s a whole lot more pressure the night of because everyone’s watching you,” Winkler said. “If you’re backstage, and you mess up, you have time to fix it.”
Senior Lillian Doskey, who hasn’t been involved in theater since being part of an ensemble in a play as a freshman, decided to jump back into acting when she heard “Grease” would be produced during her senior year. Doskey was cast as the lead role of Sandy Olsson, opposite her friend McCollum as the lead of Danny Zuko.
“Evan and I already get along, so having our characters be enemies and friends during the play is easy for us,” Doskey said. “Everybody else, especially the other leads, already works really well together because we’re all friends. Definitely being a senior and being the lead is crazy and really fun and much different from what I’ve done before.”
McCollum believes that the popularity and humorous nature of “Grease” will make acting his role and production overall special.
“It’s my senior year, and it’s such a well-known role in such a well-known play that it means a lot more to me than roles I’ve played before,” McCollum said. “It’s a lot more fun role, and there’s a lot more humor and character break-down to it than in past characters. I couldn’t pick a better (role) to go out on.”
In addition to the widespread success of “Grease” bringing in excitement to the production and the fact that 2018 is the 40-year anniversary of the film, Long-Dieth herself has extensive personal experience with the musical, which is one of the reasons why she chose to put on “Grease” at St. Martin’s. When Long-Dieth lived in New York City as an actress, she performed in many national tours, including singing and dancing her way across the stage as Cha-Cha DiGregorio alongside famous stars of the theater world. During the tour, she worked with Jim Jacobs, the original writer of the “Grease,” and Ray DeMattis, who was a member of the original cast of the 1978 film, directed the production.
Long-Dieth takes on many roles to get the production ready for showtime. Long-Dieth is in charge of directing, marketing, casting, stage managing, coordinating schedules with kids and parents, and costuming the show. As director, she tries to incorporate her students’ ideas into the production. The actors admire her theatrical experience and appreciate her open-minded approach to directing.
“She brings a lot of experience with ‘Grease,’ specifically to the cast,” McCollum said. “If we have a good idea, we can tell it to her, and she can modify her own idea or put our idea in completely if it’s how the scene should go. She’s a fantastic director.”
Wells appreciates the fact that Long-Dieth incorporates the ideas of others, no matter their role in the production.
“She knows what she’s doing,” Wells said. “She’s really open to others’ ideas. She relies on you to help with the play as well. For the cheer scenes in ‘Grease,’ Ms. Dieth asked me to make up some of the cheers, so I got to choreograph a bit. She recognizes the importance of our roles, no matter if we’re a Pink Lady or a backup dancer.”
Long-Dieth couldn’t pull off such a huge production on her own. Technical Theater Director Emily Ross designs the props, scenery, and lighting with the help of her technical theater classes. She works closely with Director of Technology James Huval on the audio. Ross bases her design around the time and place of the play itself.
“It always depends on what time period (the play is) set in and what aesthetic the director wants or I want,” Ross said. “This one’s set in the 1950s, so there’s a record player and an old-timey stereo. I like to pay attention to those kind of details.”
In addition to Ross, Long-Dieth hired Music Director Natalie True and Choreographer Kendra Wills from the outside community because of the large size of the cast and the complexity of the singing and dancing in the play.
“Last year, I had to choreograph ‘Oliver!’ all on my own, which wasn’t a problem because it’s not a huge dance show,” Long-Dieth-said. “But I knew with ‘Grease’ I needed an extra choreographer there.”
Even with the large size of the cast, the newcomers to the stage, and the addition of new faculty members, the production of “Grease” remains a close-knit community for both the students and the director.
“The cast ranges from seniors to fifth graders,” Sykes said. “Working with everyone is awesome. We’re all very close, despite any age differences. It’s a real theater community.”
Long-Dieth echoes his sentiments.
“Somehow, we theater kids have a special connection,” Long-Dieth said. “They learn how to connect with people, they have empathy, and they can work well with others. They’re problem-solvers.”
The St. Martin’s production of “Grease” opens April 18 and closes April 20. Shows begin every night at 7:00 pm.