Emerson Stage had to change its entire spring and fall seasons due to the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the original plan was to perform the beloved musical Godspell this fall. But securing the rights to perform it online were in limbo. Needing to put on a show, they knew waiting to secure the rights wasn’t possible.
The students liked Godspell because it’s about building community, said Emerson Stage Artistic Director Annie Levy. That led to Levy and Guest Director Devanand Janki thinking about creating something totally new with a theme of building community.
“Can we broaden it? Is there a bit of sacred texts to see how it gets interpreted through different religions’ lenses?” said Levy, referring to Godspell’s message.
Levy and Janki saw that in one way or another, the golden rule was part of many religions. In the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew 7:12 it states: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Godspell is primarily based on the Gospel of Matthew.
They also took inspiration from the famous Norman Rockwell painting, “Golden Rule“, which shows a group of men, women, and children of different races, religions, and ethnicities.
“What we started with was, ‘What does the golden rule have to do with being alive in 2020? What’s the nature of community now?’” said Levy.
Janki contacted a list of writers and lyricists he knew to see if they were interested in creating a new musical, and This Golden Day: A Virtual Musical was born. The musical is made up of 10 mini musicals featuring new songs and music. Many of the song creators are people of color, said Levy, which fit the message of the musical. They also combined forces with Live & In Color, an organization that creates new stage works that promote diversity, particularly multi-ethnic participants.
Before writing the songs, the writers spoke with the students who were going to sing them. The writers also had to embrace that the musical is being performed over Zoom.
“It put another layer of how does community work when we can’t even be safely in the same room together?” said Levy. “It created a subtle exploration about what is community now, considering that we are literally and psychologically apart from each other.”
Students Team Up with Established Writers
Ariana George ’21 was paired with Joshua Betancourt and Trent Jeffords. They were assigned the Wiccan religion. The duo told George how they envisioned their song.
“They wanted to get to know me. I got to talk about the religion, and if I had any personal involvement in it. They mostly wanted to get to see my personality,” said George. “I have some friends who aren’t Wicca, but they are witches who had a lot of good resources [to understand the religion].
“I was so excited because I have two friends who had personal connections. I’m just really fascinated by it. I think it’s really interesting with the connection to earth and love of all people and nature,” said George.
Betancourt and Jeffords came back with their song, “Just a Little.”
“It’s really finished and should be on Broadway,” said George, who is a mezzo belter. “Their composition is fully done and has all these instruments.”
Levy said the students are getting a great experience from working on a new musical that isn’t finished yet.
“Students can usually prepare for roles that have been sung and think about the background of how something was performed,” said Levy. “Not when you work on something new. There is nothing to help you build the character. But also, the choices you make with the work has a strong impact on the piece of how it’s going to be developed and come to be.”
A huge part of the experience is that the students will perform the musical by themselves in small studio spaces that were created in the Paramount Center and the Tufte Performance and Production Center. They won’t see the audience while working in front of a green screen.
George has mostly done live performances, with some experience with doing voiceovers. But this is the first time George has worked with a green screen.
“It’s really weird, because I have to look into the computer camera instead of seeing my scene partners,” said George. “You’re usually responding to the audience. My scene takes place via livestream. If this were staged there’d be that divide of the audience and actors. But now it’s stripped down in Zoom theater. It feels like a private moment in public.”
George said she was able to connect to the witch she’s playing.
“She’s got these cute sweet moments,” said George. “I think it’s about going in one direction and not to be afraid to show who she is. I consider myself an empathetic person, and the witch is somebody like that and I told [Betancourt and Jeffords] that, and they brought that in because she really wants to help people. She wants to help people at her own cost.”
As the pandemic continues and it is no clearer when audiences will be back attending live theatre, Levy said the production is teaching everyone how to make an online musical.
“I’m really grateful that the stars aligned and we were able to create something new and have a conversation of what can come out of this moment,” said Levy. “Ultimately, the virtual musical is clear-eyed, but hopeful. When I woke up this morning, I had a moment thinking it is appropriate now, and that I hope it will be appropriate when we premiere the musical. But if it needs to be through gritted teeth then it needs to be through gritted teeth. We’re not going to stop making theater.”
This Golden Day: A Virtual Musical is being live streamed November 19 – 22. General admission is $12. Emerson College community admission with an Emerson ID is $8.