U-M musical theatre famous “senior entrance” addresses new normal, BLM and college survival
What can you expect from musical theatre seniors after a summer in quarantine? You may expect to see song and dance, extreme cheerfulness, or even a flash mob.
What you may not expect are all of those elements added to four months of living ‘socially distant’ through computer screens. Over the summer, they have also witnessed national protests for social justice. Just like everything else, the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre department’s “senior entrance” was a little bit different this year.
Started in 2007 by the class that included heavyweights Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the senior entrance is a way for senior students at the U-M’s Schools of Music, Theatre & Dance’s leading Musical Theatre department to welcome the new freshman class.
Usually an in-person performance, this year’s senior entrance took the form of a flash mob performance released on YouTube. In the video, students channel the challenges presented by the pandemic and social injustices in a dazzling performance, dancing their way through the law quad, on the steps of Hill Auditorium, and down through Ann Arbor’s iconic State and Liberty intersection.
Organizing the video required nearly 5 months of planning. The seniors—directed by peers Samuel Faulkner and Madison McBride—originally were optimistic that they’d be able to do an in-person performance by the fall. However, by mid-June the students made the decision to film it.
“Our work in Ann Arbor began on August 2nd and really didn’t stop until the 27th,” Faulkner said.
They took care to follow the CDC guidelines and the weather, making sure to catch the sun at the right time.
“The senior entrance has always been a sort of love letter to our department and the Michigan experience, so we wanted to lean into that by setting the numbers at all of our favorite campus spots.”
Ann-Arbor filmmaker Nick Beardslee shot and edited the video, working with the students to execute their overall vision for the project.
True to the tradition, this year’s senior entrance adds new, witty lyrics to tunes from popular musicals including ‘A Chorus Line’, ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Hamilton’.
Naturally, this year is summed up by an ode to Frozen’s “For the First Time in Forever”. In front of North Quad, students lament lost summer opportunities and living in isolation and uncertainty, singing that 2020 might be “the worst time, and I’d never repeat it in my life”.
There’s also the call to bring diversity and inclusion front-and-center in the arts. McBride was a driving force in using the performance to send messages of anti-racism and BIPOC representation within the performing arts. During a ‘Kinky Boots’-inspired segment, students break into groups of different identities, singing:
It’s time to change the game ‘cuz it’s been slackin’
It’s time to change the game ‘cuz it’s been taxin’
We’re here to bring the color that’s been lacking.
For these students, theatre is the stage for both criticism and support. Much of the performance is aimed at letting the incoming students know that this is where they’ll feel seen and validated. Additionally, Faulkner said the message isn’t just for U-M freshmen.
“We’re welcoming this year’s freshmen, but also reaching outside our own community and telling young artists everywhere that there is space for them in the field of musical theatre.”
It’s the sort of community that is fostered by the small program. The musical theatre department takes about 23 students per year, making it one of the most competitive programs at the university.
The unpredictable year has certainly changed the way this class of 2021 will perform, but their voices still will be heard.
“I’m so proud of the musical theatre class of 2021,” said Vincent Cardinal, department chair. “In the face of enormous setbacks to the theatre and film industry, the ingenuity, sense of social responsibility and tenacity of the emerging generation is a reason to hope.”