Be prepared to say goodbye to Jesus Christ Superstar and “Good Morning Baltimore” in about a month. Yes, Muir Musical will be presenting the beloved show Hairspray this Spring Quarter 2019.
Hairspray will be the culmination of over eight months of hard work. Muir Musical members began the planning process during the summer, starting with choosing the musical. Director Jenna Dern agonized for weeks before deciding on Hairspray. It was one of her favorite musicals growing up, and after reading through a book on American musical theater history, she was fascinated with its narrative, which subverted typical musical themes.
The overturn of these traditional themes can be seen through the protagonist of Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad, a wide-eyed, enthusiastic, and overweight high school student who dreams of being on the local TV show in her hometown of Baltimore during the 1960s. She is a kind soul who spreads her infectious positivity throughout town, fighting traditional views on body image and racial integration along the way.
Dern did not forsee herself as the director of a large-scale musical. In her first year, Dern auditioned for a part in Muir Musical’s production of In the Heights. Although she did not get cast in any roles, she was still determined to be involved and subsequently joined the marketing team. She moved upwards from there as she became the marketing director, then managing director, and finally director this year.
However, being a director is no walk in the park. Dern describes it as “a full-time job, but the best full-time job.” After choosing the musical, the next big hurdle came with casting actors and actresses at auditions. With Hairspray, Dern wanted to go against the usual norms of casting. She says, “the best performances are authentic” and used this as a guiding principle when selecting actors. Instead of trying to choose whoever would possibly fit the character best, either through appearance or personality, she looked for potential actors who could be genuinely themselves. This can be seen in the casting of first year Becca Samuels as Tracy Turnblad. Dern fondly recalls how during auditions while Samuels acted out a scene where she was in jail, it really seemed like Samuels was pining away; the emotions she brought made Dern deeply empathize with her.
Auditions were the main focus in fall quarter, but during winter quarter, rehearsals took up a majority of the time. Cast members have four-hour rehearsal four times a week, which only ramps up as it gets closer to the actual shows in April. They start with learning their respective songs and then learn their lines, choreography, blocking, and more.
Although Hairspray comes with a script and score, members of the production team meticulously plan out other aspects of the show. The team decides on costumes, lighting, sound equipment, scenic design, and other facets of the production, giving them a lot of room for artistic freedom.
Organizing an entire production from your mental vision can be both a daunting and exciting journey. Martha Sheets, the choreographer for Muir Musical, describes her process of making original choreography: “[I] begin by closing my eyes and listening to the music, making sure I understand what the characters are moving for, who is moving with them, and what kind of tone the number is trying to convey.”
Sheets initially struggled with the balance of representing her own ideas yet making sure that the dances did not stray too far from the themes and setting of the original production. She admitted having “choreographer’s block” for a while, but she later reconciled with it when she decided to prioritize her ideas. Sheets found ways to incorporate small features of older dance moves while drawing a lot of inspiration from modern artists such as Beyoncé and Derek Mitchells. She added, “As important as it is to nod to the past, it’s equally important to make sure you are still improving, updating, and progressing so that your audience can relate.”
Other members of the creative team in Muir Musical have related with this struggle for balance. Samantha Englander, the costume designer, enjoys being able to tell stories through the medium of fabric. Although one would think that a period piece would be stifling to her artistic liberty, she has found ways to maintain her creative expression through unique color choices in her outfit building.
With over 100 students involved in Muir Musical this year, Hairspray is set to be one of the biggest and greatest productions at UC San Diego. While the show is a lot of fun, Dern hopes the audience will emotionally connect to the story and understand its relevance today. Even though it is set in the 1960s, Dern want to emphasize: “That doesn’t mean that these issues have been resolved… it’s just as relevant now as [it was] when it was produced.”
Hairspray will be running in Mandeville Auditorium on April 6, 7, 11, 12, and 13 at 8:00 p.m. on all days and 2:00 p.m. for the matinee showing on April 7. Tickets are free for UCSD students and $15 for UCSD staff, alumni, or community members. They can be bought at the Box Office in Price Center or online here.
Arun Dhingra is a Staff Writer for The Triton.