Broadway director, actors come to university to stage new type of show with students

Theater students learn from the pros

Normally you'd have to go check out a Broadway tour to see such high talent outside of New York City, but a theater production at Michigan State University serves as a new collaborative-style musical featuring Broadway actors and directors. 

"Dr. Fox and the Impossible Cure for Death" will debut for the first time as part of the school's imáGen collaboration that features the school's Theater Department students, Broadway stars and local high schoolers.

imáGen is now in its sixth year, and it's bringing in national attention for not only putting on a completely unique and original Broadway-level show, but also for giving students the opportunity to develop and collaborate on a new piece of theater, just like a professional actor would.

The company has been working around the clock for three weeks in intense workshops to get the show off its feet. Lines are changed, lyrics are rewritten and blocking is completely reworked all throughout the rehearsal process, gradually building to a fully realized and elaborate production that could one day open on Broadway. 

The brains behind the show

Benedict Braxton-Smith is the guest composer and also co-wrote the show alongside Megan Peterson, who is also the show's lyricist. 

The duo developed the score and script as a part of their work in the New York University Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. They began submitting the show to be workshopped, linked up with imáGen, and the rest is history. 

"Our main goal for this production is to see it on its feet," Braxton-Smith and Peterson said. "We've never seen it staged, so it's very special to be doing that for the first time with this program and these kids."

"Dr. Fox and the Impossible Cure for Death" is about a 13-year-old girl and the journey she goes on with her overly imaginative father. It sounds like it's as peculiar and strange as it is heartwarming. 

"The show follows a young girl's journey as she tries to save her father's life from the monster in his head," Braxton-Smith and Peterson said. "As fun as that sounds, audiences can still expect some laughs, along with quirky and groovy music and lots of foxes."

Alongside Braxton-Smith and Peterson, there is Director Timothy Koch, who is currently the resident director of "Frozen" on Broadway. 

"Tim has been doing a wonderful job putting all the pieces together, and, so far, any vision we had has already come to fruition," Braxton-Smith and Peterson said. 

Rounding out the creative team is professional stage manager Paige Conway, along with Broadway actors Ben Roseberry and Susan O'Dea and Musical Director Sinai Tabak. 

Getting a show off its feet

Working on a new musical with such freedom is a thrill and treat for the professionals, but the knowledge and insight the students are gaining is priceless. 

"The students are finding the sounds and gestures and nuances that make their characters' flesh and blood," Braxton-Smith and Peterson said. "Our entire creative team has strived to treat the students as adult professionals the entire time, to make the program as beneficial for them as possible, and they've really risen to the plate."

“Theater is a collaborative art form, and the students at Michigan State have such an incredible enthusiasm and curiosity to dive into the work,” Koch said. “Having a group of performers at different levels of perspective makes for a stronger show.” 

Getting any new show off the ground and into two hours of endless entertainment is never easy, and it's especially hard when it's a show that's new and never been performed before.

Will it make sense to the audience? Will the jokes land? Are the light cues making sense? All of these things, plus more, have to be considered while rehearsing the show. 

"The exciting thing about new work is that there is so much room for development, and the students are helping to bring these characters to life in ways we haven't seen before," Braxton-Smith and Peterson said.

A showcase for students

Getting to bring to life a new character on Broadway is an actor's dream, so for students to get the chance to take a step in their shoes for a few weeks is something that not every theater student gets.

It can be stressful when lines are getting changed and scenes are being reworked, but the creators of the show said these fulltime students have been up for the task. 

"Being a part of something that is growing and changing is a really special experience, and we hope they've enjoyed it as much as we have," Braxton-Smith and Peterson said.

The production has been a work in progress during the rehearsal process, and the actors must adapt to the changes the creative teams make. One day they could be in a scene, and the next day they're out of it and in another one. Everyone has to be on their feet and ready for whatever curve balls may come their way. 

"We started with going over music, then went into staging, where changes have been made along the way to the libretto and score," Braxton-Smith and Peterson said. "And most importantly, the students are crafting their characters."

The students have gained experience that they never would have gotten at another theater school, but the professionals working beside them are learning just as much, if not more. It's truly a collaborative experience. 

"Speaking for myself, I have learned so much from working with the students. In our first rehearsal, Tim asked the students what their thoughts were about the show, and they brought so much insight Benedict and I hadn't even thought about or realized was there," Peterson said. "I think I can safely say that the other professionals here have, too. We often speak about how invigorating it is to see such an eager and passionate group of young professionals."

Everyone's hard work will pay off when the show premieres at the Wharton Center on Michigan State's campus. Nerves will be high, as they are on any opening night, but it will be worth it to see this labor of love live on a stage.

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