July 14, 2021
The Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre has a reputation of taking on challenging productions.
This year’s production of Les Misérables could be the biggest test yet.
Executive Program Director Andrew Sherman said it’s the right decision.
“How much bigger can you go?” Sherman said. “We have the resources, we have the [cast] numbers. It’s strong. We have momentum. Now is the time to do it.”
The production has two runs, first from July 23 to 25 and again from July 30 to Aug. 1. The show will be held at the University of Saint Francis’ Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center in downtown Fort Wayne. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com
Go Big or Go Home
In 2020, before COVID-19 shuttered the entertainment world, Sherman said there were already plans for a Les Misérables production. But they wrestled with the best strategy: Conduct a simpler, more manageable production, or something big?
The answer was clear.
Les Mis is the FWSMT’s first show post-pandemic, and Sherman wanted to make a statement about the organization and about dealing with 16 months of restrictions. The goal was to provide something for a community that is hungry for entertainment.
“We had to come back with the same momentum we did with West Side Story: Go big or go home,” he said. “Who doesn’t love Les Mis? It’s got a rollercoaster of emotions, just like the year we’ve had. It’s a calculated risk with the resources and money required to put it on.”
Despite the strategic planning, there is still uncertainty about how the community will respond.
“It’s even more of a gamble coming out of COVID-19,” he said. “It’s been a long time, but people have to understand that live theater is back. It made it through and it survived.
“We are invested. There is no cutting corners. We have a unit set that’s been built over the last month and a half. We got a cast that’s been at it for seven weeks already. There is no more all-in we can go. It’s a huge gamble.”
If his gut is right, Sherman said, “People will feel rejuvenated sitting in a theater again. It’s going to feel normal.”
Les Misérables is an important story to tell. Sherman said it is an object lesson about mistakes, grace, and forgiveness.
“Every character throughout Les Mis has a backstory that we could, and should, relate to,” Sherman said.
Combining the message with the technical performance, FWSMT’s version of Les Mis promises to wow audiences.
“[The] ‘One Day More’ [scene] will be the largest and most powerful ‘One Day More’ you have ever experienced.” Sherman said. “There are 68 voices singing the song. Do I compare it to a Broadway production? No, I’m gonna be realistic, but when you understand it’s done by students 19 and younger, it will be a ‘One Day More’ you’ve never experienced.
“Every time I leave the rehearsal, I get goosebumps on my arms and chills down my spine. It’s a moment you don’t want to miss.”
According to Sherman, youth theater and high school drama programs tend to shy away from bigger productions. If they try them, there are usually a lot of adjustments. It’s a common dilemma, and finding talented cast members for the productions can be tough.
“We try to pick shows that high schools will steer away from,” Sherman said. “The reason they steer away is usually their size — whether it’s an expensive show, big tech, big sets, or costumes. Les Mis is all of those things in one.
“It’s not that high schools can’t do them. They are just very intensive. It’s huge music, some of the biggest ensembles written. They may not be dance numbers, but they are intense. The show’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, has 23 pieces himself.”
This year’s production includes 75 students from age seven to 19 who represent nearly two dozen area high schools.
“Every single one we cast could play a principal role,” Sherman said. “That’s the level of talent we have locally and in our schools.”
He calls it an all-star cast that features the best of the best from their school programs.
“I can’t believe they are the age they are,” he said. “It’s been inspiring.”
With some actors coming from a distance, Sherman said they are able to dive right in. Doing so is important for keeping the integrity of the original production as well as for preparing younger performers for more professional situations.
“It’s an eight-week intensive program,” he said. “Students rehearse three hours a day, but students are not only members of the cast. We expect them to pull at least a day of pre-production. They have a punch card that keeps them accountable for those eight hours.”
Every member of the cast helps with behind-the-scenes tasks, including set construction, lighting, and costumes. This kind of well-rounded experience helps to produce performers with advanced skills in all areas.
The mission of the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theater dates back to 1999 when Kirby Volz and Jeanette Walsh had the vision to challenge theater students through big-scale shows, all while building their skills and appreciation for the art.
The program has continued with the support of local businesses, foundations, friends, and parents. Close to 10,000 students from 30 schools have been involved.
The program is now operated under the non-for-profit Indiana Musical Theater Foundation.
Notable past productions include Grease (2000), Hello, Dolly (2001), West Side Story (2011 and 2019), Hairspray (2014), and Beauty and the Beast (2016).
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