The show must go on … except in the face of COVID.
East Lyme High School Drama was all geared up this spring to stage “Disney’s High School Musical” after a 12-week rehearsal period.
But then, on May 6, an hour before the opening night performance was supposed to begin, the show was nixed.
The reason: four COVID cases among the cast.
The school superintendent said they had to shut down the show. The plan was to produce it instead a week later.
But, as COVID is wont to do, it spread. Somewhere around 20 people involved with the production — from crew to staff to volunteers — caught it.
That “wait one week” directive could not hold.
Now, four weeks after the originally scheduled opening night, the students of ELHS Drama will actually, really, truly perform “Disney’s High School Musical” this weekend.
ELHS Drama is spearheaded by David Conaway and Monique Nee; the duo, who are married and have long been involved in the local theater scene, co-directed “High School Musical,” and she choreographed.
The last-minute canceling of opening night was, Conaway says, devastating for everyone involved, “I think because there was a sense — especially because it was so late in the year already — that the show wasn’t going to happen at all, that all their work was going to go out the window. So I just started making sure that everybody understood that we absolutely are doing the show, that there’s no way we’re not going to do the show.”
Looking on the bright side
On an afternoon last week, four of the students involved in the production spoke about the COVID-induced craziness: Ama Gonzalez-Hall, a senior who plays Gabriella; Ama’s sister, Jazmin Hall, a sophomore who, in addition to being a featured dancer, choreographed three of the numbers herself, and helped Nee work through the choreography for the other numbers; Jamie Kim, a senior who plays Taylor; and Patrick Conaway, a junior who plays Ryan and who has been a student co-producer. (Patrick is the son of David Conaway and Monique Nee.)
They all agree that, in a way, the postponement might actually work out to be a good thing.
Back before the planned May 6 opening night, Ama says, “I was very nervous because we were out four people so that was really stressful. Then they said we weren’t doing the show, which was a mix of emotions — obviously, I was very upset and like ‘Darn,’ but at the same time, I think I was relieved because we were out four very important people, and I just didn’t think the show would have been the same without them.”
The production doesn’t have understudies, so if the show had gone on without those four actors, the people subbing in would have had to learn as much as they could in a short time and use scripts onstage as necessary. (Patrick says that, considering the show is about high school students, they could have played it as if the scripts were their binders.)
Jamie notes, too, that the previously scheduled run was around the same time as AP week, and a lot of the students were exhausted from that.
Patrick says, “Justin (Berg), who plays Troy, had given little speech before we all left on opening night. We were all supporting each other. So I sent out message on a Google Classroom and was basically like, ‘Hey, guys, I know this sucks, but now that we have the time, let’s make this show the best that it can possibly be. … I think it was a lot of supporting each other and helping everyone get better and a lot of checking in.”
With the new opening night looming, Ama says, “I definitely feel like there’s a renewed sense of hope. I feel like we’re all very excited to be back at it.”
In the interview, the students’ positive attitude and team spirit is apparent. When one of them mentions how they are all in this together, they all laugh and break into a few bars of the song “We’re All in This Together” from “High School Musical.”
David Conaway says, “The resilience, positivity, and support that these kids have given each other during quarantine has been awesome and illustrates how they have adapted to the pandemic, creating TikTok and other video montages to keep up morale. And those layers of connection will only help make the show even better than it would have been had we done it (on the original dates).”
The high school experience
Conaway and Nee chose “High School Musical” in part because of all the high school experiences that students missed during the virtual COVID months.
“The reason we took on ‘High School Musical’ was to give the kids a really fun, exciting show after two-and-a-half years of educational dystopia that wiped out most of the traditional memories people associate with high school,” Conaway says.
He says, too, that they wanted something that the kids knew and that would excite them, their families, and the other students in the school who might want to come see the show.
A diverse group
Conaway says he and Nee are proud of how diverse the 33-person cast and 15-person crew of “High School Musical.”
In addition to its racial diversity, the group features students with a wide array of school experiences. They include band, choir and orchestra members, naturally, but also swimmers, cheerleaders, and members of the crew team, and the president of the school’s LGBTQIA+ organization.
There are plenty of people who are onstage for the first time.
“It really was such a collaborative effort of the kids that were sort of the theater kids for years working with the kids that had never been onstage,” Nee says.
Jamie is one of those who is in her first show. She had contemplated auditioning and finally, considering this is her senior year, decided to take the plunge.
“I was so scared to sing onstage in front of people, but this cast is so supportive of one another,” she says.
Part of the draw for her and a lot of others was the fact that the show was “High School Musical,” which the students have a great fondness for, going back to their childhood.
And now that they are in high school, of course, it has more meaning.
Jazmin says, “You can relate to some of the characters. It’s like this is not a dramatic show — it’s high schoolers going through the same things that you are.”
Even though this “High School Musical” has yet to have its opening night, it has already been nominated for five Halo Awards, which Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury gives to Connecticut high school groups. Here’s how: because the production got shut down and the award adjudicators couldn’t see it, Halo organizers allowed ELHS Drama to send in rehearsal video clips.
ELHS Drama also received 12 nods for “Puffs,” the fall production that Conaway and Nee co-directed and co-produced.
Earlier this week, Jazmin won a Halo Award for her choreography work in “High School Musical,” and she also won a dance scholarship. Patrick won Best Male Comic Performance in a Play for “Puffs.”
Because of the pandemic, Nee says, “so much has been robbed from (the students). One of them said, ‘This will be first time I’m onstage without a mask.’ To me, I think that it makes you appreciate so much more live theater and the connections that they’ve made.”
The students likewise feel a sense of gratitude about getting to perform the show after all.
“We came back for the first rehearsal back, and it was actually pretty good,” Patrick says. “I was surprised that my lines just flowed out. I felt like I was putting more into it because I was so grateful that we have this time now and I really wanted to make this the best show possible.”