University of Musical Theater kicks off 10th year with “Sunset Boulevard”

Celebrates its 10th anniversary in the Coachella Valley, David Green’s Musical Theater University (MTU) is more than ready for its close-up. The company will open its 2022-23 season with “Sunset Boulevard,” the Tony Award-winning musical based on the iconic film of the same name.

A tale of faded stardom and unfulfilled ambition, “Sunset Boulevard” is the story of silent film star Norma Desmond’s volatile relationship, living in a world of dark fantasy as she dreams of returning to the silver screen. , and struggling Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the music for the stage version, based on the 1950 film directed by Billy Wilder and starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden.

If “Sunset Boulevard” seems like an ambitious choice for a program that trains young people in theater professions, it is by design.

Director and MTU founder David Green walks through the script while giving blocking notes during a rehearsal at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Saturday, November 12, 2022.

“Our stage is our classroom,” said MTU founder David Green. “It’s a chance for students to put their art into practice.”

He added: “I always choose shows that will challenge them and help them grow. This year I chose ‘Sunset Boulevard’ because I want students to come together and work together in a show of star vehicles. with two amazing Broadway veterans.”

Green, who is directing production, says the cast’s 16 students learn to be part of a cohesive unit.

“As an ensemble, it’s sometimes more difficult than taking on a scripted role,” Green said. “Because you have to make it all up about who you are, your character, and your place in the story – nothing that the author ever gave you. So it’s a growing experience for them.”

Choreographer Michelle Ditto works with students during a rehearsal at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School in Rancho Mirage, Calif. on Saturday, November 12, 2022.

New ways to dream

Ben Van Dijk has been a student at MTU for three years, performing in Zoom shows, on stage, in live performances at a number of venues across Southern California, and in the MTU original film, “Blame It on the Mistletoe”.

Now in his freshman year at Rancho Mirage High School, Van Dijk will appear in “Sunset Boulevard” as Artie Green, a character whose fiancée is embroiled in an unhappy romance with Joe Gillis.

“Every time an actor plays a character, he learns something about himself, about the world,” Van Dijk said. “With this character, I can’t wait to learn more about the period.”

He praises the learning environment at MTU.

“The staff, the faculty, everyone is very supportive, and we’re lucky to have amazing, experienced teachers,” he said. “It’s like a family.”

The biggest star of all

For actress Karen Mason, the MTU production marks a return to the legendary role she played on Broadway and in Los Angeles.

She still remembers her audition as Norma Desmond.

“It was during a time when auditions were still in theaters, which I loved,” she said. “Being on a stage on Broadway and auditioning for a show. It’s both intimidating and magical.”

This audition was so magical – and intimidating – that she suddenly couldn’t remember the words to the song she was planning to sing.

Actor Karen Mason, playing Norma Desmond, performs a song in one of the opening scenes during a rehearsal of "sunset boulevard" at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School in Rancho Mirage, CA on Saturday, November 12, 2022.

“I sang ‘With One Look’ and screwed it up,” she said. “I came to ‘with a look’ and then nothing came out. And I heard from the back of the house – shouted in a British accent – ‘I can break your heart. “”

The distinctive British voice shouting the lyrics from behind the darkened theatre: composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

She eventually impressed him and director Trevor Nunn so much that she served as Glenn Close’s replacement when the musical had its US premiere in Los Angeles and then on Broadway.

“Watching Glenn as she grew from day one of rehearsal to her first performance was like a masterclass,” Mason said. “But what I didn’t know about doubles and covers is that you don’t really get the same rehearsal time.”

So she hired a friend to work with her several days a week.

“The tricky part of being a cover [an understudy or standby who covers for other performers] not only do you have to find your own character, but you can’t get in the way of the production,” she said. “One day, I watch reruns of Star Trek. The next day, I’m playing in a huge musical. My job is to make sure it plays out like a big Broadway musical and everyone looks good. And that’s a lot of hard work.”

She did the show for two and a half years.

“I covered three of the Normas – Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige – and learned something from each of them,” Mason said.

For Mason, whose Broadway credits also include “Mamma Mia,” “Hairspray” and “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” performing with MTU is both a teaching and learning experience.

“What’s so fabulous about what David Green does is bring in veterans and people who have been – and still are – in the trenches of show business,” Karen Mason said. “They get to rub shoulders with them and see them as people and also as artists and really hear about the hard work that goes into it. It’s not that magic thing that happens. It’s really about the work.”

Actor Eric Kunze, playing Joe Gillis, works onstage with Karen Mason, playing Norma Desmond, during a rehearsal for "sunset boulevard" at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School in Rancho Mirage, CA on Saturday, November 12, 2022.

She added: “Being with young people who are always wide-eyed, who are passionate and ready to jump into the fray, it rubs off on you. And if you let it, you’re excited to play again. .I think that’s probably the greatest gift a student can give a teacher.”

Like we never say goodbye

Three professional artists return to MTU for this production.

Eric Kunze, who performed on Broadway in “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon,” will star alongside Karen Mason as Joe Gillis. Kunze is an MTU veteran.

“I met Eric when I was running my conservatory in southern Orange County and brought him in to do masterclasses initially,” Green said. “He got his start on Broadway when he was 20. And he’s such a gifted actor that he’s become an incredible role model and mentor to students.”

Vocal director Constance Gordy “teaches all the notes and works on the beat,” Green said.

Bandleader Bob Marino leads an orchestra of 18 professional musicians from across Southern California.

“Not only does he lead the orchestra, but he also works with the kids from the perspective of how the voices fit into the orchestration and into the show,” Green said. “It’s one of the most empowering vocal performances we’ve done to date. It really pushes them to learn how to sing really difficult harmonies, difficult bars, difficult music.”

Accompanist Constance Gordy performs during a rehearsal of "sunset boulevard" at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School in Rancho Mirage, CA on Saturday, November 12, 2022.

The perfect year

MTU’s 10th anniversary season will continue with “A Chorus Line” and the regional premiere of “The Prom.”

Green also works with the composer and director of the musical “Minnie’s Boys” about the Marx Brothers, whose comedic talent brought them to stardom from vaudeville to film. An eventual Broadway revival would, Green said, allow students “to experience working on material never before performed and, in some cases, written specifically around their talents.”

Funded by the Palm Springs Unified School District, MTU receives a budget for each production.

But because of the scale of its program and its ambitions, it also receives funding from the PSUSD Foundation, which “raises additional funds to help support, for example, the 18-piece orchestra,” Green said. . “This wouldn’t be possible without the donors who support the students.”

Students follow a musical routine during a rehearsal at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Saturday, November 12, 2022.

As MTU celebrates its 10th anniversary, Green will be cheering on two alumni of its programs. Leana Rae Concepcion, who studied with MTU Coachella Valley, will make her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” with a cast that includes Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Tony Award winner Lindsay Mendez, a conservatory alum of Green in Orange County. Tony Award winner Stephanie J. Block also attended Green’s Orange County Conservatory.

Green says the dedication of her students drives her own passion.

“They are so passionate and so hardworking,” he said. “And they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Because they don’t yet understand the word ‘no’, they truly believe that anything is possible. Because of this belief, they will strive to achieve the excellence beyond some working professionals.”

He added, “Their commitment, dedication, passion and drive continue to fuel mine.”

If you are going to

What: “Sunset Boulevard” from the University of Musical Theater

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday Nov. 17 and Friday Nov. 18

Where: Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, Rancho Mirage High School, 31-001 Rattler Road, Rancho Mirage

Cost: $35

Learn more: musicaltheatreuniversity.com

Director and MTU founder David Green works with Douglas Graham playing the character, Max, during a rehearsal at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Saturday, November 12, 2022.

Barbara Kerr is a freelance communications specialist with a passion for writing about people, the arts, and special events. Inducted into the Dayton (Ohio) Area Broadcasters Hall of Fame, she is a past president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) College of Fellows.

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