Since 2005, Northwestern University’s American Music Theatre Project has been boosting fledgling musical theater composers. For the young artists whose work will debut this year, AMTP offers a double milestone: the aspiring composers and lyricists (all seniors at NU) will finally see their work—much of it years in the making—on its feet.
This year’s AMTP Capstone Festival, running April 1-11, is also the first—and hopefully only—one to be staged during a pandemic of unparalleled disruption.
“Given the bizarre nature of everything that’s going on, we’ve had to try a lot of new things,” says senior Ruchir Khazanchi, the composer for A Bridge to the Moon. Khazanchi penned the show with Mikey Walden and Emmet Smith, all of them students in the intensive “Creating the Musical” module.
In addition to A Bridge to the Moon (directed by Autumn Thelander), the fest will also stream Change My Mind, written by Theo Janke-Furman and Lorenzo Pipino and directed by Samara Malik, about a woman working in a clinic where patients can change one thing about themselves; and Alone: A New Musical, by John Ertman, Joseph Mathusek, and Natalie Pereira, directed by Freyja Goldstein, about a pair of recent high school grads facing an unplanned pregnancy.
For months, Khazanchi says, the creators of A Bridge to the Moon could only meet outside, so they’d work on the show while going for walks. Over winter break, they moved to Zoom. In January, they were finally in the same room, albeit masked and at a distance that required occasional shouting.
And while rehearsing a musical when nobody can sing in the same room is challenging, to say the least, Khazanchi sounds singularly unbothered. As head writer of this year’s Waa-Mu Show—NU’s fabled annual student talent extravaganza—he’s already had a crash course in transforming something that was supposed to be live and in-person theater into digital theater.
“It’s exciting to me, the possibilities we’re finding in this age of digital collaboration,” the Omaha native says. “My family back in India, they’ve never been able to see my work. This year, we’re able to share it with them.”
Drawbacks and all, this year’s Capstone Fest is an improvement over 2020, when the entire endeavor had to be scrapped the week it went into casting, says David Bell, artistic director for AMTP and a professor of music theater at NU.
“We had plans last year to have a live production,” Bell recalls. “And in the beginning, I think a lot of us assumed we’d take a month, we’d be really careful, and then it would be OK to be back in class. We didn’t have the wherewithal right away to make it a Zoom show. So we turned it into a demo-tape musical.”
“It was great, but it wasn’t a live musical like we wanted, with actors and everyone in the room. This year it’s still not actors in the room,” Bell continues. “It’s all being done remotely and safely. We’ve hired videographers for each musical, and mentored each one with a professional in the field, which helps because there are so many writers on the national front who are out of work at the moment.”
There’s no choreography this year, Bell says, and viewers will see characters isolated in the familiar Zoom squares.
“Obviously, the university has very, very stringent guidelines as to what we can and cannot do, especially around singing, which we all know can be a super-spreader event. Fortunately, none of this year’s shows were particularly dance heavy,” Bell says.
Restrictions or no, the AMTP has grown significantly during Bell’s tenure. Since Dominic Missimi launched the program in 2005, the faculty has grown from one to nine, five of whom are writers, Bell says.
It’s also drawn some of the biggest names in the business as collaborators. This year, the Pulitzer-shortlisted playwright Kristoffer Diaz (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity) will see his new show, Expect Victory, performed for the first time when NU students perform via stream June 1-13 under the auspices of the AMTP. The piece is one of three shows by professionals getting an early outing from the AMTP. Diaz has been developing Expect Victory with composer Rona Siddiqui and director Jamie Castañeda. The musical follows a math genius using stats to win basketball games.
“Plays on Zoom are pretty doable, but musicals? That’s going to be a tricky nut to crack,” Diaz says. “We don’t know exactly how it’s going to look at this point—we’re going to prerecord some things and rehearse over Zoom. The gift of it is we’re able to keep working on it, and I have these incredibly talented artists to work with. I mean, I’ll still be in my attic in New Jersey. But we’ll be working with this great group of students in Chicago,” he says.
The other pieces developed by professional artists for AMTP this year are [re: CLICK] 2.0], a multimedia performance installation reflecting on #MeToo, co-adapted and directed by Roger Ellis and Margaret Laurena Kemp from the play Click by Jacqueline Goldfinger (April 16-30) and Sean’s Story: Part One: The Reckoning and Part Two: The Awakening, by Los Angeles-based writer and composer Khiyon Hursey, a coming-of-age story about a young queer Black man, codirected by Hamilton vets Patrick Vassel and Tiffany Nichole Greene (May 3-27).
For Khazanchi, A Bridge to the Moon, about a child’s struggle to use imagination to overcome painful loss, comes from a year marked by extremes in mourning and inspiration.
“I think there’s both a deep sense of grief and a need to escape right now. People want to leave their houses. They want to come out of their bedrooms. They want to feel something new, try something new. I think we became kind of struck by this image of a child building a bridge to the moon just because they could. There was something fantastical about it but also very truthful about it,” he says.
“I think we’re about to see a really fertile time in musical theater,” he continues. “I think we are about to witness a time of artistic fertility for this medium. People are starving for that in-person connection theater has, in a way I don’t think we ever did before. When it’s safe to come back, there’s going to be so much creativity. So much joy. v