“We’re going back to 1979, when a gallon of gas ran you about 0.85. Shag rugs, pet rocks and disco were the hottest thing around and it seemed like your whole life existed between the hours of 9 to 5.”
“10 to places!” – “Thank you, 10!”
Brooks Bennett, a Nashville native and Belmont musical theatre freshman grabs the microphone and booms through the Troutt Theatre’s sound system—“10 to places!” (In everyday speak, this means that actors, dancers and stage hands should take their places in 10 minutes…dress rehearsal is about to begin.) The student sitting a few rows back in the audience shouts, “Thank you, 10!”—a designation given to acknowledge the time stamp was heard.
Back stage, energy is high. The principal actors arrived hours before call and have spent the last 90 minutes curling every hair on their head, applying just the right amount of blue eye shadow (after all, Doralee Rhodes has a reputation to uphold), getting fitted for microphones, making last minute costume adjustments with the show’s professional costumer and slipping into the green room’s bathroom for one last vocal warm-up. Between mascara application, costume stitching and sips of vocal coat tea (a trick one of the lead actresses swears by), conversation flows.
“I got in bed at 12:30 last night and didn’t go to sleep until 2 because all I could think about was this wig.”
“Were you putting your eyelashes on with a bobby pin?”
“I’m sure everyone is always saying OMG! Her hair is amazing!”
“I just wanted to see your face because you make me so happy!”
“Thank God for throat coat.”
With dancers running between floors and hairspray so strong you can taste it, Belmont’s musical theatre department is in their final preparations for “9 to 5,” their 2017 spring musical. Set in 1979, the storyline follows the lives of three women who work together at Consolidated, Inc. Overworked, underpaid and fed up with workplace inequality, Violet Newstead partners with co-workers DoraLee Rhodes and Judy Bernly—and they get even. In what Director and Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre David Shamburger calls a redemptive story, the trio ultimately learns that what they’ve been looking for was inside them all along—even the strength to fight their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot” of a boss.
The show was cast before the semester ended in December for the holiday break, and students are expected to return to campus with their lines and lyrics memorized. Jumping straight into daily rehearsal, the process is underway. Run like the ‘real world,’ students who enter the musical theatre program are preparing for careers as professional performers from day 1. Coordinator of Musical Theatre and Professor Nancy Allen said the department prides itself on the way students are conditioned for professional theatre. From behavior to preparation to the routines of each rehearsal, students who graduate from Belmont understand what to expect in a professional troupe.
In the last 10 years, Broadway has seen 10 Belmont musical theatre alumni on its stages and another 30 have performed in national tours. Allen credits much of this, in addition to students’ raw talent, to the professional education they receive at Belmont. “We are creating professional performers,” Allen said. “We want them to leave Belmont and know that they could walk into any professional theatre company and be successful. We intentionally create an environment that is run like what you would see in the ‘real world.’ We’re a family, but we’re also preparing professionals.”
And it’s not just Allen who describes the department as a family, despite the rigorous nature of their schedules. Ask any musical theatre student, “MT” for short, about their experience within the program and they would use the same word. “We’re a family,” said Dani List, MT junior and Roz Keith in “9 to 5.” “We love like family, fight like family, work together like family. We’re so proud of each other and the work that we do. We’re a family.”
List also points to the ‘process’ of developing as a musical theatre professional, emphasizing the importance of trusting the ways each faculty member develops student talent. “We’re told from the very beginning that we have to trust the process, and we’ll see the results,” she said. “I wasn’t sure at first, but it’s true. There are so many pivotal moments each year and we become better and better. We have to trust the process.”
A Different Perspective
Sitting in the audience during dress rehearsal, Shamburger (“Sham” for short) echoes this feeling. His voice can be heard through each act as he gives notes to the rest of his technical team—that reaction should be larger, she should enter just a bit sooner, someone forgot Judy’s desk…who is assigned to Judy’s desk? Don’t get in the way of the Skrim! His notes may sound expected as he comments on the delivery of each line ensuring the right inflection, timing and diction, but his motivation is what makes his style unique.
Looking back on his 10 years at Belmont, Sham can easily point to the one thing that has kept him on campus—the opportunity to weave his faith into everything he does, both on and off the stage. “God has called me here,” he said. “I can profess my faith and integrate it into my teaching. That is the number 1 reason I’m here.”
He sees theatre as an opportunity to illustrate the redemptive story of Christ through each and every show. Whether it’s the chance to tell of justice and love in “Les Miserables,” illustrate a woman’s ability to engage with the unfamiliar and ultimately eliminate her fear in “Grease” or empower all who are oppressed in “9 to 5,” Sham prides himself in his ability to find redemption in all shows, regardless of their theme. “My purpose in telling a story as director is to bring everything together to bring out the human condition,” he said. “My truth is that the human condition is granted to us by God.”
Students walk into Sham’s studio and immediately know the lens he uses to view theatre. When describing the focuses of shows, he illustrates the human condition for students, allowing them the opportunity to experience life through someone else’s perspective. “Every show teaches us something,” Sham said. “They teach us what it is to engage the world for Christ, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that each and every day.”
Talent On and Off the Stage
When sophomore, MT student and principle actress Cassie Donegan takes the stage as DoraleeRhodes, Dolly Parton’s classic character from the 1980 film, it’s the opportunity to perform for her family that fuels her. With seven family members traveling from Virginia—even her great grandmother who she likens to Dolly—Donegan said she’s eager to take the stage and make her family proud. “She’s one of the strongest willed women I’ve ever seen,” Donegan said, describing her great grandmother. “For her to see me in a show like this means a lot.”
And it’s those same family members who have fueled her musical theatre journey thus far. Though her dreams after college are filled with bright lights and big cities, Donegan said she sees her passions going beyond the traditional route. She dreams of one day opening her own performing arts school—one that has a special focus on special education as she’s seen her younger sister’s life be changed by “the universal language. My sister has seen me be on stage so many times and now she wants to do it because ‘sissy does it,’” Donegan said. “She lights up on the stage—it has changed her life.”
Rehearsal Over…It’s Go Time
The final note rings out and cries of applause fill the theatre, despite the small crowd that’s watching (primarily made up of the other cast—students who will take the stage tomorrow night). The cast completes a full curtain call as they practice taking their bows, motioning towards the orchestra and acknowledging their tech team before Sham calls from the back of the theatre and asks the group to be seated.
He goes through a few final reminders and allows students to share their own feedback with each other. Hands raise and comments are made about the importance of knowing your cues, staying quiet backstage and moving quickly through scene changes. With opening coming in just two days, the dress rehearsal ends with Allen’s final comments. Though they relate to the show, she takes this last opportunity to close with a life lesson. “There are times when we won’t communicate well,” she says. “But we have to learn how to handle stress, apologize and get better next time.”
She closes in prayer—thanking God for her students, her colleagues and the ability to tell the “9 to 5” story. “See you tomorrow,” she says.
The cast begins to trickle from the stage, wipe off their make-up and remove their wigs. They’re out of costume and back to their own lives as students—at least until class tomorrow. With two days left until the show’s opening night, it’s go time…especially between the hours of 9 to 5.
Belmont’s production of “9 to 5” can be seen in the Troutt Theatre on Thursday, March 30 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 1 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here.
Images from the show can be seen here.