24 January 2016 by Seth Weinstein, Musical Director for StudentsLive and Passport to Broadway China
As New York endured the winter’s first major snowstorm, temperatures in southeastern China plunged to lows not seen in decades. It was then that we, along with 50 students aged 8 to 13 from the Clifford School in Guangzhou, drove up into the mountains north of the city for an eight-day intensive musical-theatre program. It’s sort of like a retreat in the Chinese Poconos in the freezing off-season. Our venue is the GZ. Journalists Country Club, a resort among several near the Furongzhang Reservoir whose lack of Internet information promised much mystery (is there really a bowling alley in the cellar?) and whose lack of heating has sent us scurrying for our jackets. Coincidentally, there’s a British-led theatre program for Chinese students going on in the same hotel, but we have yet to rumble in the lobby.
Our show, A Journey Home, is a 45-minute revue containing parts of 33 theatre songs, two choreographed instrumental numbers, and ten monologues spoken by the main characters, who are split in their attitudes about living in China: Some are eager to move to the United States, while the rest prefer the comforts of home. It’s a fully danced production with choreography by Stephen Brotebeck, direction by StudentsLive director and founder Amy Weinstein, and musical direction by yours truly, Seth Weinstein (no relation).
Our hosts, and the leaders of the program in China, are an earnest bunch with a sense of humor and an endeavor to get things done against all odds. Some of the promised amenities got lost in translation over four months of Skype preparatory calls: Only one music stand was delivered out of eight, only three mirrors appeared instead of a full lot to span the width of the stage, and a theatre for the final performance was finally procured that just happens to be a two-hour drive away, back near the school—convenient for the parents to attend but not so handy for tech rehearsals. The theatre has a manual light board when we arrived with 191 programmable cues, the lights are LED when we prepared for gels and gobos, and we may or may not eventually have a drummer. Of course it will all come together, albeit with some assembly required: They are great partners and drive three hours to get us the right number of music stands. Amy’s plea for morning coffee was fulfilled with the presentation of a bag of coffee beans after a two hour drive to find real black coffee.
We met the kids last night at dinner, served family-style in a large private room in the hotel. They were enthusiastic and eager to start. Most had never even heard Broadway music before this program came around, and they were curious. At least one was just happy to be away for a while. “Hotel, no mom!” was what the program’s start meant to her. But she has good spirits, and we cast her as one of the leads. As they went upstairs from dinner after our initial meeting, ready to sleep two to a room without adult supervision, we marveled at how orderly they were.
“That’s because they are scared,” one of the Chinese teachers said. She had given them a speech outlining the dire ramifications of misbehavior.
Our first workday was a long, yet quick, succession of dance warm-ups, vocal-range testing, auditions, casting, and rehearsal. This kind of work was clearly new to the kids: At the audition, “One” from A Chorus Line resembled a moonwalk, and clapping on the off-beats in “America” from West Side Story disintegrated into a kind of clumsy applause. For the most part, they could sing or they could dance, but not both at the same time. And yet their eyes evinced a determination to succeed; their initial shyness gave way to an effort to move and sing and risk being wrong—the best way to start learning. Discipline played its part: One boy, banished to the back for talking out of turn during a vocal rehearsal, became the first to raise his hand and stand up when his part was called.
We proceeded at breakneck pace. Casting and a read-through finished at 4:30 p.m., and by 7:00 we had taught, at least on the surface, the music to all but two of the first act’s 23 minutes. Three days from now they will know the entire show, both music and choreography. And it’s supposed to warm up by then. For all that, we are very excited.