Who's Next! for a shag?
"I like theater because it's live and because that moment can't be replicated; it is unique in its power to provoke," explains Guest Artist Jonathan Mastro. "Musical theater has the ability to connect with emotional immediacy to an audience; the moment the music starts playing, it changes the room. It puts the audience in a different place." In the spirit of musical theater's propensity to both entertain and provoke, Mastro's original musical Next!: A Cabaret from the Frontlines, hopes to address social and political themes by re-contextualizing familiar (and not-so-familiar) songs from Broadway and other musicals.
As guest artist for the semester in the Theater and Dance Department, Mastro's position entailed staging a cabaret or a musical revue with songs that were somehow connected. "The idea that stuck with me was having songs from musicals that are on the social and political fringes--that contradict the idea that musicals are just about entertainment and the status quo," Mastro says of his thought process. "If you look closely at the history of some of the musicals, there is a lot of interesting social commentary going on. I wanted to take that material out and put it into a show that could be provocative."
Although Next! is a musical revue, it is held together by a loose plot, dialogue and characters. It is the story of a group of students at Colby who are trying to stage a show that has social and political resonance. As many students here know, there are classes that require such community engagement. The students who have been cast don't play characters, but rather perform an aspect of themselves. Mastro, himself an active performer who has written original plays, original music and songs, acted, and served in a variety of musical functions, has roots in Chicago's rich theater scene. Based on his work there, he applied the Neo-Futurist aesthetic that "you don't play characters, you are yourself" to the conception of this play. "I had interviews with the people I ended up casting and wrote versions of them into the script. It's scripted based on the people cast," Mastro explains. Trip Venturella '12, one of the actors cast in the play, describes the acting technique Mastro's preferred aesthetic produces, "During the rehearsal process, there is a lot of experimentation and improvisation physically. The movements that come most naturally to us and that look the most visually interesting, are formalized."
The title, "Next!" comes from the Jacques Brel song Au Suivant, which means "who's next?" The song is about a soldier who is at a whorehouse, waiting in line to lose his virginity. Au Suivant is the question asked as the prostitutes go through their customers, as in "Who's next to lose their virginity?" The context is then shifted to the theater of battle: who's next to die? Finally the soldier decides to desert, rather than wait in line to be killed; he will not be next.
Mastro explains that the song is related to the theme of the musical in that "I'm using material that is politically and socially advanced--that is on the fringes; it indicates what's coming next. [The title] is also about the transitions within the show, to keep going to the next number." The songs included will be a mixture of obscure and familiar fare, including works by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Brel and Stephen Sondheim. They will refer to politics in the abstract (war, injustice, etc.) and politics in its concrete manifestations (for example, "Millwork" has topical significance for Maine's manufacuring history).
Having determined the ideology and aesthetic guiding Next!, Mastro had to arrange the original songs to fit the thirteen-piece orchestra that was available for the show. Considerations included keeping harmonically important lines and cutting others, and changing instrumentation and orchestration for huge orchestras to fit the thirteen-piece orchestra. In addition to arranging the songs, Mastro is also director and musical director for the play. He worked with set designers and costume designers to realize the vision he had for the show. A note on the set: it consists of two moving scaffolds and a moving staircase. Actors will be performing what Mastro called "feats of daredevilry" on these set pieces as they are rolled around.
The cast of eight has a range of theatrical experience, which made the production challenging since "students did not have a common language of performance." However, as Next! enters its final week of rehearsal, Mastro says, "It's rewarding to see people starting to get it. Once people start getting a common language, it opens a sense of the moment, of being alive in the moment." Venturella says of the show, "It will be disarmingly nonchalant and naturalistic; even the set seems improvised and unpolished. Yet the show as a whole will be extremely polished, but probably not in the way the audience expects it to be." Ultimately, Mastro says, the object of being in a production is "putting yourself into something as much as you can. The success of the show is not whether you get a standing ovation, but whether you give everything you can give to it."
Next! opens next week, with its first show on Thursday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m. and subsequent performances on Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2:00 p.m. in Strider Theater. Tickets are available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis, so come early.