Theater students grappled to squeeze what would normally take 100 hours of rehearsal into 13.
It’s 6 a.m. on a Sunday when dozens of conservatory students anxiously crowd around a cardboard box.
The box contains what the young musicians and actors waited months for: the name of their next production. This won’t be a normal production, however. These students set out to break a world record by producing a musical in less than 13 hours.
Sophomore Jeremy Jacobs slowly opens the box with a box cutter. He and Director Gaby Rodriguez peel apart the cardboard covering over the script. Silence settles over the company as Jacobs searches for a title on the script’s front page.
“We’re doing “A New Brain” by William Finn,” Jacobs says. “Everybody go, go, go.”
Choreographer Trace Turner rolls his eyes and throws his hands up in the air. Rodriguez curses. Jacobs smiles. No one has heard of “A New Brain.” They’ll have to squeeze what normally takes 100 hours of rehearsal into 13.
The actors buzz as they pile into the lobby of Webster’s rehearsal space on Garden Avenue.
“Oh this will be easy,” Jacobs says. “It’s one act, it’s only 110 minutes long”
Silence quickly replaces the initial excitement as students listen to the music score on Spotify and YouTube. The only sound that pervades is the stomping of Rodriguez’s frantic walk from meeting to meeting.
Junior Colleen Dougherty dances while everyone sits on couches with scripts on their laps. She’s excited for the production.
“I can’t wait to put this on my resume everyone,” Dougherty says. “Even if I’m just a tree in the background.”
Music Director Jacobs sits alone in a room with nothing but a piano and the thick stack of music he needs to learn by 7 p.m. Stage Manager Emma Prange calls the company to the rehearsal room for the scheduled dance rehearsal.
“Broadway or bust,” they repeat as they put on their dance shoes and walk to the rehearsal room at 6:45, 10 minutes behind schedule.
The ensemble must follow set guidelines to qualify for the world record. Rodriguez holds auditions even though she already has an idea of who she’ll cast.
The actors waste no time. They run into the rehearsal room, hand Jacobs their piano accompaniment, face a table of directors and introduce themselves.
“Now that was Broadway,” Jacobs says. “This is the best audition process I’ve ever had.”
Junior Noah Cornwell confidently introduces himself to the panel. Everyone looks up their script highlighting and note scribbling when Cornwell hits a high A note in “The Lady Must be Mad” from “Illyria.”
Rodriguez finishes the cast list before the door closes after the last audition. Stage Manager Emma Prange walks into the lobby where she tapes the paper onto a vending machine. The actors swarm.
Cornwell raises his eyebrows. He’s the lead character, Gordon Michael Schwinn, and he’ll only have 12 hours to perfect the part.
Rodriguez sits down for the first time in hours. Her sight alternates from the script to her Macbook where a bootlegged version of the musical plays. Her foot bounces up and down.
The cast’s initial high from possibility diminishes as reality starts to settle in.
No one has the time to sit and read the whole script. The cast and production staff try to piece together the musical through YouTube videos.
“I won’t know what this show is about until tonight when I’m watching it,” Rodriguez says.
The cast has been rehearsing for four hours. Most aren’t any clearer about what to do than when they began.
“I just now figured out that Mitchell’s a frog,” Turner says. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a show and didn’t know what it is.”
Cornwell sits in a corner alone. The reality of his lead part sinks in and Rodriguez worries he’s starting to freak out.
“I’m just worried that I’m not going to deliver in the way my castmates expect me to,” Cornwell said. “I want to show them there was a reason I was cast into this role.”
The cast struggles to learn the music. Jacobs says William Finn notoriously writes difficult music with odd harmonies and changing time signatures.
Jacobs’ hands begin to ache from all the piano playing.
The cast moves from their rehearsal space to the stage at Nerinx High School 30 minutes behind schedule. Jacobs hasn’t taught half of the music. Rodriguez still needs to stage five songs.
Rodriguez says there’s too many things to think about: sound, tech and pit. All needed to be fine-tuned before curtain rise in less than five hours.
The cast runs through the song “Heart and Music.” No one knows their stage directions. Turner choreographs the actors as Rodriguez turns through the wrinkled pages of her script. The actors struggle with the complicated harmonies.
Liana Gallyoun observed the production and took notes for the Guinness Book of World Records. She worries the cast won’t be able to perform without a script, which would disqualify their world record submission.
“The mentality right now is that we’re gonna try, but if after we run through the whole show and no one goes completely without script, we can’t pull it off, which hurts,” Gallyoun says.
Rodriguez could see the strain on Cornwell’s face as he tried to jam all his lines into his brain. That’s when she thought what she wouldn’t allow herself to think until then; the actors might have to go onstage with scripts.
Audio Technician Maddy Herwig announces the house is ready over the sound system. The curtains were supposed to rise 25 minutes ago.
Jacobs and Rodriguez decided to let the actors use the scripts. They won’t beat the world record.
“We kind of decided we were going to have to do what’s best for the actors,” Jacobs said. “We realized it was taking too long to teach everything from scratch.”
Backstage, actors tell each other to break a leg. Molly Burris anxiously sways alone in a corner as she tries to memorize more lines last minute anyway. Rodriguez says, “Oh God,” when she steps out into the theater lobby and sees the associate director of The Muny and most of her professors.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Rodriguez says.
The audience fills almost every seat. They cheer when the lights on the stage dim and Cornwell steps out into the spotlight.
The show’s a mess but no one cares. Toward the end of the show, the cast sings “Heart and Music.” The crew dance and smile backstage.
“I think all of us dancing all of the stress out of our bodies and having so much fun,” Cornwell said after the show. “It was so stressful during the day that we forgot that this is what we want to do with our lives.”
No one felt disappointed that the ensemble didn’t break the world record. Choreographer Maya Christian worked with the cast for the entire 13 hours.
“We’re really pulling something off, and that’s something to be proud of honestly,” Christian said.
Rodriguez smiles at the end of the show.
“This has been the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” Rodriguez says. “At the same time, though, let’s do it again next year.”