When it comes to music and theater, we have no shortage on the River Campus. From academic programs to student organizations, there are a wide variety of opportunities for both the musically and theatrically inclined. But in the case of musical theater—that wondrous production genre which combines uniquely captivating music with theatrical performance—the number of related activities on our campus has historically been very low. For years, Off Broadway On Campus (OBOC), the student group known for their creative and well-executed musical theater revues, has largely been carrying the musical theater torch alone.

But that all changed when the new musical theater production group ROC Players emerged this past semester, with plans to put on Rachel Sheinkin’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Slotted for a March performance, “Spelling Bee” is just the beginning for ROC Players, whose members hope to perform two to three musical productions each year in the future.

Yet the exciting news in the Rochester musical theater world didn’t end there. The UR International Theater Program (URITP) announced last fall that they would be dedicating this spring to Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”—the first musical they’ve produced in four years. The English Department’s theater has even commissioned composer Matt Marks to work in-residence with the participating students who will premiere his brand new score in Todd Theatre this April.

“I think it’s wonderful,” senior Alberto Carillo-Casas said of the recent proliferation of musical productions at the University. He’s been an active participant in both TOOP and URITP since his freshman year and will be performing the role of “The Chaplain” in “Mother Courage.” “I just think that it shows that this student body has a passion for performance, and it’s so great that we have all these groups trying to achieve something in common—bringing more theater and more culture to campus.”

When ROC Players’ co-founders, senior Scott Lamm and junior Zachary Stuckelman, came together to form their new organization, they certainly had Carillo-Casas’ sentiments in mind. However, in addition to increasing the amount of musical theater on campus, Lamm, who is directing “Spelling Bee,” and Stuckelman, who serves as the group’s artistic director, also wanted to offer a unique musical theater opportunity that would fill a notable gap in student activities. 

“What sets us apart is that we’re completely student-run—from fundraising to directing to producing—and that we’re doing a full-length musical,” Lamm said. URITP does full-length musicals, and OBOC is student-run; but no group, at least in recent times, has brought these two components together. Other unique aspects of ROC Players include their goal of eventually producing student-written musical productions and their dedication to working closely with Eastman students.

Eastman junior Cassidy Thompson, for instance, is working as  the musical director for “Spelling Bee” and notes how much she appreciates the opportunity ROC Players has given her to get involved in contemporary musical theater.

“[At Eastman] they do wonderful classic musical theatre productions but not more contemporary ones with the ‘belting’ vocal technique, which is personally my favorite,” Thompson said. “Getting to work on this show has been refreshing and an outlet for me to explore a bit more the side of theatre that I identify most with.”

“Spelling Bee” is a comedic show that tells the story of a quirky group of students participating in a middle school spelling competition and was selected as ROC Players’ inaugural production for both personal and practical reasons.

“We wanted to start with a show that’s very versatile,” Lamm explained. Not only can it work in an unconventional space—in this case, the May Room—but it is also a low-budget musical and, in Lamm’s opinion, is “very relatable to a college campus”—all qualities that made it an attractive choice for a group that’s just starting out.

“Starting with a show like ‘Spelling Bee’ was genius,” Thompson said. “Starting here, there are other shows that we can do that are very similar, and eventually I think we could gain enough of a following and enough interest to do even bigger shows and have even more fun.”

While the “Spelling Bee” cast and crew work on their show in Drama House, across the street in Todd Theatre, rehearsals are in full swing for “Mother Courage”—a very different sort of production.

As opposed to the schoolhouse-set “Spelling Bee,” which was written in 2005, “Mother Courage” is an anti-war musical that explores themes of victimhood and survival, and its new contemporary pop-rock score breathes fresh air into the 1939 script. In addition to both River Campus and Eastman students, its cast includes a number of Rochester community members, and its design team is primarily made up of professionals. As a Theater Department-sponsored show, “Mother Courage” also has a substantial budget and use of the fully equipped Todd Theater, which has  allowed URITP to consistently pursue and successfully execute ambitious projects.   

“It is very important to me that the work that the theater department does—and in essence uses [student] tuition dollars to fund—is of the highest possible quality,” Artistic Director of URITP and “Mother Courage” Director Nigel Maister says. “There is a difference between a student activity and an academic theater program. There is a difference in scale, there is a difference in ambition, and there is a difference in mission.”

Several of these differences, including the expenses that musicals entail and the extensive time commitment required of participating students, contributed to the department’s decision to put musicals on a once-every-four-years schedule­—the same rotation URITP has applied to Shakespeare plays. 

“The musical form is something that I love a lot, and I think we should be doing,” Maister said. “We should be aiming to do the best possible musical theater that we can do, and we should be aiming musical theater that entertains but also challenges us.”   

But despite Maister’s dedication to keeping musicals in the department’s repertoire, at this point he doesn’t see the program being able to offer anything more frequent, making the arrival of a second student-run musical theater program that much more significant.

“The goal of both of our groups is to make sure that musical theater gets established and has a presence on this campus,” OBOC President and junior James Kostka said. “So as long as we’re carrying out that mission, it doesn’t really matter which group you’re in, or if you’re in both, or if you’re just going to support the show.”

OBOC, which has been around since 1998, is more than happy to welcome ROC Players to the UR musical theater scene. In the spirit of collaboration, the two groups have even started discussing how they can support students who are interested in participating in both their organizations.

“I really just want to make sure that everyone gets involved with and starts appreciating musical theater more,” Kostka said. “Whether that be through our show, or their show, or Todd’s show—we’re all just here to make musical theater happen.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will take place in the May Room on March 26th with a family-friendly show at 7:30pm and a show for more “mature” audiences at 10:15pm. Tickets are $5.

 Mother Courage and Her Children will run April 7-9, 13-16, and 20-23 in Todd Theatre, offering both 8:00pm show and2:00pm matinees. Tickets are $10 for students.

 OBOC’s spring production (surrounding the theme of travel) will take place on April 22nd at 8:00pm in Upper Strong. Tickets are $7 for students. 

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An open letter to all members of any university community

I strongly oppose the proposed divestment resolution. This resolution is nothing more than another ugly manifestation of antisemitism at the University.