Students work with playwright, director to develop new musical in pilot class

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Musical Theatre Workshop students are working on refining the musical "Swing Wings" by William & Mary alumnus Bill Schermerhorn '82. Photo by Stephen Salpukas
Musical Theatre Workshop students are working on refining the musical “Swing Wings” by William & Mary alumnus Bill Schermerhorn ’82. (Stephen Salpukas/W&M News)

Catchy dialogue and chuckles fly back and forth as animated voices fill the room.

Students in the Musical Theatre Workshop pilot class working on the 1940s-era musical “Swing Wings” are running through their lines. The class is an experiment this semester at William & Mary, as students develop a new musical.

W&M alumnus Bill Schermerhorn ’82 wrote the show and is occasionally visiting the class while working through possible revisions with director Christopher Owens, musical director Phaedra McNorton and choreographer Denise Wade. Owens, W&M associate professor of theatre and chair of theatre, speech and dance, said the process is a new one for his department.

“So basically it’s taking students through what would be a professional development process for a musical that would occur in a regional theatre or in an off-Broadway situation,” Owens said. “It’s also piloting a COLL 400 capstone course.”

Owens and Schermerhorn met at a gathering in New York aimed at garnering W&M alumni support in the city. They wanted to work together, and eventually Schermerhorn decided that “Swing Wings” would be a good fit for students at his old haunt of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.

Originally Schermerhorn was going to fly down intermittently to assist. But he recently moved to Williamsburg to become the new creative director for signature events at Colonial Williamsburg.

He looked quite comfortable the first day of class, sitting beneath the bright lights in the studio theatre as students did a table read while marking the scene breaks in the action with their pencils as directed by Owens.

“It really is like a workshop in New York where the writers sit and read,” Schermerhorn said that day. “I look forward to the adventure.”

The parts involve speaking, singing and dancing, and three students will play instruments as well in informal performances April 28-30.

Owens has students researching 1940s culture to immerse them in the time period. The show is based on the World War II experiences of songwriter and band leader Milton DeLugg and the Air Corps musicians who created the era’s signature radio broadcasts. Schermerhorn had worked with the real-life DeLugg prior to his death, and said the show grew out of his interview with DeLugg for the Library of Congress Veterans Project and songs that came out of it.

The story line captures America in the 1940s with men and women squabbling, daily military life and that day’s celebrities featured prominently. Dancing, card games and Bob Hope singing on the radio convey the spirit of optimism that Schermerhorn said characterized a very dark time.

“I think it’s just a win-win situation for everybody,” Schermerhorn said. “It gives them a chance to develop a new project, be the first to play these characters.

“They’re giving me the feedback that helps me develop the characters even further, so it’s very exciting as an artist and definitely as a writer.”

Students auditioned last semester for the roles, three of which are double-cast with two actors to allow more students to participate. They have tons of enthusiasm for the project.

“It’s super-cool to be able to work with, not only an alum, but a professional in the field,” said Alana Canty-Samuel ’18. “He knows how we work as students, and the industry. It’s an opportunity that rarely happens.”

Xavi Soto Burgos ’20 is elated to be involved, saying he did theatre in high school but never got serious about it until he got to college.

“I’m definitely super-excited to be a part of this,” Soto Burgos said. “It’s a privilege to work with Mr. Schermerhorn.”

Students are encouraged to suggest changes to the script and songs, but most of the back and forth is between Owens and Schermerhorn. They expect to have to make compromises and sometimes to flat out disagree, but both said that’s an important part of the process.

Owens observed that “the students will see it, and that could be uncomfortable when they see director-playwright conflict. But that’s the real world; so it’s great that they’re able to see that we don’t always agree. And that both of us will probably compromise in some places.”

Schermerhorn had a long career with Macy’s working on its Thanksgiving Day Parade and music for its events. His contributions to W&M have included hosting an intern to work on the Macy’s Parade and recently helping with the W&M Homecoming Parade.

In addition to working with students as he continues to polish the script and finish songs for “Swing Wings,” he plans to donate part of his royalties from his writer’s fee to the university after the musical is published.

“It’s a way to give back to the College, which has done such wonderful things for me,” Schermerhorn said.

Owens is monitoring how the new class fits into the department’s curriculum, as well as another possibility he’d like to see happen.

“Could we then begin to solicit other new musicals who are looking for workshop development?” Owens said. “There’s a variety of playwrights out there in the world, of both straight plays and musicals, who are constantly looking for places for their shows to be developed. And so if we kind of put ourselves on that market, I have no doubt that we would have a plethora of scripts to look at to decide each year, OK this is the one. And it would be a different group of students each time.”