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U-M professor reimagines presidential campaign as musical comedy

Liberty Smith, played by Jacléne Wilk, and cast in a campaign commercial from the film “Liberty’s Secret.”

Long before a reality television star became a presidential nominee, award-winning composer, theater artist and filmmaker Andy Kirshner was thinking about the close relationship between politics and popular entertainment.

Fascinated by the similarities between “statecraft” and “stagecraft,” and by the sophisticated science of political image-making, Kirshner, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the Stamps School of Art & Design, set out to create a feature-length musical film about the song and dance of modern American politics.

The result—eight years later—is “Liberty’s Secret,” a satirical movie-musical in the grand tradition of Technicolor MGM movie-musicals and of balloon-filled, made-for-TV conventions.

A one-night-only screening at the Michigan Theater at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 marks the world premiere of “Liberty’s Secret,” which has been booked at film festivals in the U.S. and Germany, and will be released on DVD and VOD after its festival run.

Kirshner’s new film follows the rise of Liberty Smith, the squeaky-clean daughter of a “family values” preacher who becomes the symbolic centerpiece of a socially conservative presidential campaign.

When ingénue Liberty falls in love with her (female) spin-doctor, the result is a political catastrophe. A video of the two kissing goes viral, and a confused Liberty must choose between the life she knows, and the love she has always dreamed of—while all of America watches.

The film stars SMTD graduate Cara AnnMarie, and newcomer Jacléne Wilk in the romantic lead roles.

Kirshner says that while “Liberty’s Secret” takes great pleasure in poking fun at political hypocrisy and cable news celebrities, it is essentially a love story between two women.

John Lepard as the hopeless presidential candidate, Kenny Weston in "Liberty's Secret."

John Lepard as the hopeless presidential candidate, Kenny Weston in “Liberty’s Secret.”

“I love old musicals—like those by George Gershwin, Meredith Wilson, Leonard Bernstein and Frank Loesser—but frankly, the gender politics of the musical-theater classics are terrible,” he said. “I wanted to write a musical that would capture the same tap-dancing, jazz-inspired joy of an earlier era, but where the women weren’t tamed by men, or where they didn’t always have to fall in love with a boy, as if that were the only real-life possibility for a happy ending. I wanted to write a traditional musical that was nontraditional.”

In addition to composing, writing, producing and co-directing the film with choreographer Debbie Williams, Kirshner performs the role of Rolf Schnitzel, a carefully coiffed celebrity-journalist.  

Shot entirely in Southeast Michigan, including many locations on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus (like the Michigan League Ballroom), “Liberty’s Secret” was created with help of more than 150 Ann Arborites who served as extras and many talented students, staff and faculty members from the U-M community.

Stamps alumna Laura Pazuchowski led an art department staffed by many current Stamps students and alumni, and several of Kirshner’s musical colleagues from SMTD are featured as both performers and instrumentalists.

Students from Stamps’ Interarts Performance BFA program and from SMTD’s MFA Dance program appear with theater professor Malcolm Tulip in one of the film’s more outrageous scenes, while SMTD professor Cynthia Kortman-Westphal led a singing chorus of current SMTD musical-theater, voice students and faculty members. SMTD voice professor Caroline Helton is particularly notable as a hula-hooping church lady.  

Nikki Levine, played by Cara AnnMarie, and Liberty Smith, played by Jacléne Wilk, dance cheek-to-cheek in “Liberty’s Secret.”

Nikki Levine, played by Cara AnnMarie, and Liberty Smith, played by Jacléne Wilk, dance cheek-to-cheek in “Liberty’s Secret.”

A true U-M community project, alumni from U-M’s Screen Arts and Cultures program joined the film crew, and the soundtrack was recorded in the U-M Library’s audio studios in the Duderstadt Center.

“I don’t think I could possibly have made this movie anywhere but at Michigan, with its incredible combination of technological resources, support for faculty, talented students, and world-class artistic colleagues,” Kirshner said.

Advanced tickets are available online at the Michigan Theater website. Tickets are $10, or $8 for students.

The special Ann Arbor screening is sponsored by the Stamps School of Art and Design; School of Music, Theatre & Dance; Institute for Research on Women and Gender; Spectrum Center; Institute for the Humanities, School of Information, and the Department of Performing Arts and Technology.

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