Teamwork with Wings: A Musical Theater Miracle Takes Flight
A record number of students, faculty, and parents dedicated their time, talent, and passion to a hallmark staging of the Broadway hit musical Phantom of the Opera.
Poet W. H. Auden summed it up incisively: “There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.”
In this case, much more — and scores of other, behind-the-scenes stories, as well. When Brunswick and Greenwich Academy faculty, students, and parents united to stage the smash-hit musical Phantom of the Opera at Baker Theater in early March, the curtain rose on a spectacular production that captivated cheering, sellout audiences.
Based on the early-20th-century novel by French writer Gaston Leroux, Phantom originally opened on London’s West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988.
With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, it won seven 1988 Tony Awards, including Best Musical — and now stands, as by far the longest-running production in Broadway history, with nearly 11,000 performances during the course of 26 years.
And, as staging of Phantom set records on Broadway, it also substantially raised the bar for participation in the annual ’Wick/GA musical production.
“Time! Blood! Heart!” English and Theater Teacher Seth Potter exclaimed. “It was just incredible! So many people came together to give so much of their time, energy, and talent to this production.
“It was one of the single largest and most collaborative whole-school efforts I can remember,” he said. “Where else could you find almost 100 students, working along with dozens of parent volunteers, professional musicians, and faculty members — all on one, giant project?
“In Phantom,” he said, “nobody could stay on the sidelines.”
Potter underscored the School’s commitment to the entire process of staging a musical — to establishing and maintaining the highest standards and to involving every student and member of the extended community who wanted to be involved.
“Phantom brought more people into our theater program than ever before,” he said. “Every year, our goal is to involve as many students as possible in telling the story as professionally as possible.
“This year, that meant that the cast on stage was the largest ever,” he continued. “It also meant that many more students and parents had to be involved in the wings and behind the scenes — doing everything from sewing costumes, making scenery, and working with sound and lighting equipment, to doing dry-ice runs.
“We all pitch in to make it come together,” he smiled. “The nature and spirit of the collaboration really brought out the very best in everyone. Theatrically, it honored the past and the present, and it also respected the contributions, large and small, of every individual.”
Phantom included a total onstage cast of 53 Brunswick and GA Upper Schoolers — about 10 to 15 more than usual, Potter said. It even expanded to welcome Middle Schoolers Caleb Osemobor ’18, who worked on sound, and actor Gabriel Mehra ’20, whose three older brothers, now alumni, had all been deeply involved with ’Wick’s theater program.
In the wings, 23 students served on the production crew, under the technical direction of Matthew Kirby-Smith.
Both on and off stage, faculty members always emphasize dedication and professionalism at every level. “It’s an extended process,” Potter explained. “The faculty leads that process not only by teaching, but also by example.
“In turn, students really respond in doing their own parts and in holding each other accountable to the highest standards.”
“When the curtain goes up,” he said, “that’s what really shows.”
Behind the scenes, Costume Designer Abby Redmond planned for and managed the logistics of wardrobe and make-up — creating a giant, character-by-scene Excel spreadsheet to account and prepare for every player’s needs and transitions.
A child of parents who were professional dancers, Redmond has “always loved being backstage.” She began strategic thinking about Phantom as soon as the decision was made to do the show.
“As a designer,” she said, “I can’t turn it off.”
The production required about 225 different costumes — only four of which were rented for the occasion. “I don’t try to keep an exact count,” Redmond said. “It’d drive me crazy.”
To assemble the massive collection, Redmond trekked to two different costume sales at the Theatre Development Fund, tapped the sewing talents of parents and students, and credits Greenwich Academy’s Megan Ormond for being “enormously helpful” in lending costumes for dancers.
Then, “fitting” was a process that spanned seven to nine weeks.
“When you do a show like this, you spend a lot of time being overwhelmed,” Redmond admitted. “You wonder how it will all come together. Then it does!”
But it’s work, not magic. “There’s no way I could have done a show this size without the tremendous help of parent volunteers,” she said.
As rehearsals and backstage preparation progressed, student “self reliance” became essential.
“The show was so big, we just couldn’t do for them what we have in the past,” she said. “Student actors had to learn how to apply their own make-up, manage their own costume changes, and carry their weight as part of the team.
“Through rehearsals and performances, the students really held each other to an incredibly high standard of professionalism,” she said. “If someone slacked off, another student would say, ‘Hey, pick it up! You’ve got to do your part.’”
Redmond and Upper School Theater Technical Director Matthew Kirby-Smith supervised a larger-than-ever stage and production crew — about 10 to 15 more students than usual.
“We had a very strong group this year,” Kirby-Smith said. The “core” team of student technicians recruited friends and fellow students to help mount a production the size of Phantom.
“Normally, I have to install all the over-stage rigging,” Kirby-Smith explained. “This year, an honors student was exceptionally qualified and took over the entire job. That opened up time for me to focus on adding more scenic units.
“Our backstage talent pool enabled us to stage a production that was much more scene-specific,” he said. “We gained a lot by ‘repurposing’ every single scenic unit we own — including sets we constructed and saved from many years past.”
Creation of the set began with a basic plan, which “always evolves,” Kirby-Smith said. “The final set was very similar to the original plan.”
That collaborative result involved students and parents, experts and novices, dedicated technicians and part-time newcomers.
“This was the first show for which fathers came in to build things,” Kirby-Smith continued. “We put out a call for expertise: Four dads answered.
“The parent support was outstanding,” Kirby-Smith said. “They went above and beyond.”
After Saturday evening’s final performance, Kirby-Smith deemed Phantom “the smoothest run musical we’ve ever had.” (“But don’t tell Seth I said that,” he added.)
“The students learned a lot, worked to an amazing standard of professionalism, and had fun,” he smiled. “It’s a high school musical. Those are the most important measures.”
In Phantom, “the music of the night” makes all the difference. Vocals and instrumentals came together under the direction of Choral Teacher Alexander Constantine.
“Enthusiasm generates ambition,” Constantine said. “Going in, everybody felt it was a real honor to be part of this show. Students knew that this was something special — and they just devoured it.
“It was exciting to be part of a show everyone knows,” he continued. “That excitement came across in how hard they worked.”
Vocals required group rehearsals as well as practice at home. “Everybody — and I mean everybody — did their homework,” Constantine said.
Phantom was resounding in its proof that “the arts are really and truly alive and thriving at our School,” Constantine said. “We’re small, but we’re great!
“I couldn’t be prouder of the students, and of what we accomplished in working together.”
Kelly Albano (P ’14), Brunswick Parents’ Association Upper School Arts Chairman, coordinated the work of dozens of parent volunteers.
“The whole parent group came together as a team,” she said, thinking back over the roster of contributors.
“We were all knee-deep in it all the time — Saturdays, Sundays, stitching, sewing, painting sets, planning meals, hanging mirrors. It was crazy, but really fun. And the energy was just infectious!”
The opportunity offered parents the chance to make hands-on contributions while seeing their own children and other students deeply engaged in a complex and creative group endeavor.
“The kids were just amazing,” Albano said. “To watch this group of students in rehearsal was to see how involved and professional every single one was.
“This year, in particular,” Albano noted, “the production included an equal balance of singing and dancing.” A troupe of 14 dancers from Greenwich Academy augmented the traditional mix. “The GA dancers really added a level.”
When the curtain rose, “everything seemed to be one,” she said.
“As we were working,” Albano recalled, “a dad approached me and said, ‘I can’t believe how cool this is!’
“There’s no question this year’s crew of parent volunteers was larger than ever,” she said. “For many people, staging of Phantom really opened a new window on the excellence and professionalism of Brunswick’s theater department.
“The cast and crew delivered a show that will definitely stand the test of time,” she said. “This production was a unique showcase of the talent we share with GA in theater and dance.
“We’re truly fortunate to have a cutting-edge performing arts faculty who, like the coaches at ’Wick, know their players and how to maximize their potential.”
For Potter, Redmond, Kirby-Smith, and Constantine, the annual collaboration is “tremendously gratifying.”
“Working in the theater, we get the chance to discover things about ourselves,” Potter said. “And working together, we get to do so while we’re discovering things about each other.
“It’s truly a remarkable process,” he said, “and one in which everybody, both onstage and in the wings, both gives and receives in taking part.”