Students and Broadway Professionals Collaborate on New Musical

Man at podium speaking to group

Anna Birmingham, a junior double majoring in Theatre and Social Relations and Policy with a minor in Musical Theatre, has spent the last two weeks working with Broadway professionals as part of the imáGen collaboration between MSU’s Department of Theatre and Wharton Center Institute for Arts & Creativity.

Each year, since 2014, imáGen invites Broadway writers, actors, and dramaturges to Michigan State University where they work alongside college and high school actors in presenting a staged concert of a new musical under the guidance of a Broadway-caliber director.  

The program is an extraordinary learning opportunity for the MSU Department of Theatre and community high school students who are cast in the production.  

“Working alongside these actors is absolutely incredible,” Birmingham said. “We’ve had rehearsals where our director will ask the Broadway actors about their process as actors and what thoughts go into their actions. That isn’t a normal rehearsal process with professionals, but they did it as a learning experience for us, and we got so many great insights into how they work through their roles.”

two women singing
MSU student Nicole Tini (left) and Broadway actress Katie Thompson (right).

The script selection for this year’s imáGen performance is We Foxes, a southern Gothic thriller set in small-town, 1945 Missouri. This new musical by Ryan Scott Oliver is the story of Willa (played by senior Theatre major Nicole Tini), an orphan girl who is adopted by the town sheriff, Quimby, and his wife, Vesta.

Oliver, who is described by Entertainment Weekly as a “major new voice in musical theatre,” was invited to be a composer-in-residence.

“This was the only show I auditioned for this season because I was so passionate about working with Ryan Scott Oliver,” said Birmingham, who plays Laura May, one of Vesta’s three best friends, and is the understudy for Vesta. “He is so highly regarded in the contemporary musical theatre community, and I’ve been obsessed with his work for a really long time.”

Along with Oliver, the imáGen program has engaged several other visiting artists as part of this two-week residency, including Marshall Pailet, director; Matthew Schneider, dramaturg; Katie Thompson, actor; Wade McCollum, actor; Paige Conway, stage manager; and Ethan Carslon, Oliver’s assistant.

There are so many opportunities for creative collaboration.

“It’s incredible because we have professionals, and then we have college students who are looking to do what the professionals are doing, and then we have high school students who are looking up to us because they want to do what we’re doing,” Birmingham said. “It’s people at all phases of life coming together and collaborating, and that’s something I can really appreciate. I’ve gained so much knowledge.”

Each day rewrites are done on the script and then presented to the cast that evening, providing a mutually beneficial collaboration between students and professionals.

Working alongside the visiting artists and students is the MSU imáGen team, which includes MSU Department of Theatre faculty members Brad Willcuts, Assistant Professor, and Alisa Hauser, Specialist, and MSU Musical Director Dave Wendelberger.

“imáGen is such a great program for everyone involved – from the MSU and high school students to the Broadway performers,” Willcuts said. “There are so many opportunities for creative collaboration.”

We Foxes will make its debut performance at the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre on the following dates and times:

  • Friday, September 22, at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, September 24, at 2 p.m.

Tickets, which can be purchased from the Wharton Center website, are $15 for the general public and $10 for students and youth.

Written by Alexandria Drzazgowski, Professional Writing Major