|The Booker High School VPA Theatre Department will kick off its season with an original macabre musical, “Sleepy Hollow, A Musical Ghost Story.” The show will run from October 17 through Oct. 20, 2012, at 3201 N. Orange Ave.
The show represents a first at Booker High School: VPA Theatre faculty Scott Keys and Johnnie Mnich have written the lyrics and music for the musical. To herald the creators and to celebrate the world premiere of this ghoulish show, Booker is hosting a special Gala Event on the show’s opening night, Oct. 17, with people on the guest list ranging from Sarasota dignitaries and school board members to those Booker High School supporters whom the school would like to thank by treating them to a one-of-a-kind event and performance.
“We are blessed,” Booker High principal Dr. Rachel Shelley said. “Every day these blessings come in, and I don’t even ask for them. It’s time to give back.”
The musical is an adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and the plot revolves around a girl with mystical powers, Katrina, who becomes involved in a love triangle with Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, who compete for her hand in marriage.
Keys, the acting teacher who wrote the book and lyrics, said that the idea to write an original musical was twofold: partly, it was a result of not feeling satisfied with staging any of the published musicals that already existed in the high school canon. Partly, inspiration came to him from the Tim Burton films “Dark Shadows” and “Sleepy Hollow,” both starring Johnny Depp. Noting the pop culture trend of appreciation that darker, supernatural material basks in of late, he thought his students and audiences would appreciate entering this mystical terrain. Plus, he felt that such a spooky show would be a perfect choice for an autumn musical, one that would appear just before Halloween.
Keys suggested writing their own musical at a faculty meeting last spring.
“I watched this man light up,” Keys said of his collaborator, musical theatre teacher Johnnie Mnich, who was instantly on board with the idea of writing a musical.
Although Mnich is an accomplished singer and pianist, and has nurtured musical talent of young Broadway hopefuls, including the noteworthy American Idol finalist Syesha Mercado, he said his favorite aspect of musicianship is composition.
“It’s a passion, at least for me, that can be compared to nothing else that music has to offer,” Mnich said.
That faculty meeting got the ball rolling and the team spent the summer writing the musical, in a collaboration that both men describe as exciting. Mnich said that some days over the summer, he would sit down at his piano at sunrise and begin to write, and before he knew it, the day would have slipped away and it would be nighttime.
“And I would just look at the piano and see pages and pages of music,” he said. “It was thrilling.”
Keys, whose graduate degree is in musical theatre writing, has written musicals before, and the ghost story genre is not unfamiliar to him. He has material that has been performed by theatre companies around the world, including “Macabaret,” which has been translated into several languages and is currently enjoying a successful run in Spain.
However, this is the first full musical collaboration the duo has endeavored specifically for students, and the process has been wonderful. As they wrote, they would envision how their music might sound issued from the capable pipes of their talented students. Now that the musical has been cast and is in rehearsal, they are seeing their visions come to fruition.
“The students have really stepped up to the plate for this piece, and that’s really thrilling,” Keys said.
As for those students, the leads said that this is the most exciting experience of their budding careers.
Ellie McCaw, who plays Katrina, said that creating a role for the first time has been quite a challenge.
“We are originating the roles; there’s no way to reference other performances. You have to be a lot more focused,” she said. “It’s an amazing experience, especially at our age.”
Indeed it is an amazing experience, and one that is quite rare for students. The educational opportunity for serious students of theatre is unparalleled at Booker High School, and this musical is a new notch on that belt: the students are the original cast, and rather than getting their cue from those who came before, they are involved in critical thinking skills and director collaboration to hone their characters that is not offered in the typical high school theatre class.
“We have to dig deep, and the choices we make as characters are bigger,” said Tyler Brown, who plays Ichabod Crane. “It’s great because it allows us to really take risks.”
Zach Herman, who is originating the Brom Bones character, said one of the great things about the Booker High VPA is the constant access students have to their instructional and artistic collaborators.
“It’s cool because if something comes to me, after class I can just be like, ‘Hey, Mr. Keys, this is what I’m thinking,’ and he’s right there to give me feedback,” Herman said.
The students all agree that the musical is amazing. Fiona Battersby, the stage manager, said that she is glad to be involved in such a pivotal role in the production.
“A lot of the songs, when we first heard them, everyone was just speechless,” she said. “It was amazing. I don’t know any other way to describe it.”
Sleepy Hollow runs from Oct. 17 – 20, at 7 p.m. in the VPA Theatre. Oct. 17 will be an invite only performance, but tickets are available for all other shows, including a 2 p.m. matinee on Oct. 20. Tickets can be purchased at vpabooker.com, or by calling Judy Piercy at 355-2967, ext. 65032.