With a shimmering silver and gold beaded curtain framing the stage, audience members of all ages will be transported back in time to the glitz of Broadway in the roaring 20’s. The vehicle is the music of composer extraordinaire Cole Porter, performed by the students in the Musical Theater Performance class instructed by Professor of Theater Davis Robinson.
Thursday night marked the opening performance of “COLE,” a musical weaving together many of Porter’s most famous songs, created by the Theater and Dance Department. At first glance, COLE is about Porter’s life: his glamorous, jet-setting adventures; his maybe not-so-secret identity as a gay man and the horseback riding accident that left him disabled for the final 30 years of his life. But while its opulent setting may be exciting to many audience members unaccustomed to the glamour of the roaring 20’s, Robinson hopes that its larger themes will resonate with students (and their parents visiting this weekend in 2019.)
“Musicals say a lot about the world that we live in, every musical does, really,” said Robinson, citing Hamilton as “the show of this decade.”
So what does it mean to put on a show built around songs composed and performed in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in 2019? “COLE” has given students the opportunity to both immerse themselves in timeless songs and to get creative with the staging of those songs in order to tell new stories and magnify hidden ones.
As a closeted man in the early 20th century, Porter wrote his love songs to include few female pronouns. In doing so, he broke conventions in an era when homophobia was rampant and commonplace.
Robinson and his students have arranged many of the songs differently than Porter’s original arrangements to imagine the queer relationships that may have inspired them and create a musical that explores love in more universal ways.
Lucy Sydel ’22, who will be performing in “COLE,” helped choreograph the show. She focused on using the movements of the actors to explore how stories can be told through bodies and their visual cues.
“I’ve been trying to make small visual nods,” Sydel said. “I’ve been really interested in exploring, for example, heteronormative partner dances and how we can queer those. Being gay, that informed a lot of [Porter’s] life. And so I’ve been really interested in how to incorporate dance in telling his story.”
For Sydel, whose background is centered more in modern dance rather than in choreographing musical theatre, this process involved incorporating new forms of movement into what she calls her “movement vocabulary” and teaching them to fellow students with varying levels of dance experience.
Actors have rehearsed since the start of the semester, meeting twice per week in addition to two weekly two-and-a-half hour class sessions. Robinson has been careful to use the rehearsal process as a learning experience, distributing workload and solo performances evenly among the students.
“Really, it’s an ensemble show, even though everybody has their individual highlights, and everybody’s got their moment to shine,” Robinson said. “You want to give people a positive experience with healthy work habits, set a professional level of skill … We want to make sure that they are singing on key and singing with volume and support and dancing at the same time.”
Some of the student actors in “COLE” are theater majors who could go on to become Broadway stars, while others may have no such aspirations. But each has been completely immersed in the process of bringing the magic of Cole Porter to life.
“It’s like this jet engine that takes off, you carry the audience and then you put them down somewhere else afterwards,” Robinson said. “I think there’ll be some goosebumps, some tears, some laughs.”
COLE will be playing in Wish Theatre on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 4 p.m.. A limited quantity of tickets will be available at the door.