The middle school musical Oliver! was performed on February 1, 2, and 3 in the School Center. The musical was directed by drama teacher Stan Ratoff, musically directed by choral director Lisa Ross, and choreographed by dance teacher Deborah Hull. Fifty students were in the cast and 13 students were in the backstage crew. All grades in the middle school were represented.
The cast and crew had 10 weeks to put together the musical. The auditions were in October, and work was started on the musical at the end of that month. In the first two weeks, Ms. Ross worked with the students to learn the songs, and then the music, acting, and choreography were combined.
Oliver! is the story of a young boy, Oliver Twist. Oliver lives in an orphanage, but is soon sold to an undertaker. He runs away from there and is found by the Artful Dodger. He is brought to live with Fagin, who runs a den of pickpockets. He is then launched on an adventure filled with musical numbers.
Oliver! was the first musical to feature fifth and sixth graders as well as seventh and eighth. “The logistics and the timing of [a large cast] was a bit challenging, but it was very successful,” Mr. Ratoff said. “I think it’s a wonderful experience for all of the students because I’m seeing fifth and sixth graders interacting with the seventh and eighth graders.”
Many of the cast members made friends that they wouldn’t have made in other situations. “It was a bit weird at first because my closest friends [weren’t] there,” fifth grader Sage Saunders said. Saunders was a member of Fagin’s gang of pickpockets. “At the end [you] don’t want to leave because you made so many friends.”
“The best part is probably the relationships you make with other people,” said eighth grader Cala Lindsay, who played Mrs. Bedwin, a housekeeper who helped Oliver. “It was interesting for me as an eighth grader because I now have friends that are in sixth grade and fifth grade and seventh grade.”
Sixth grader Will Griggs’ favorite part of the process was “getting to meet a lot of new friends and spending a lot of time with them.” Will played Oliver, the title character of the production.
Even while spending rehearsal time with their friends, concentrating was a struggle for some cast members. “It was hard with the hours and the concentration needed,” Lindsay said. “Even if you’re on stage, if you’re not talking constantly, it’s standing there and looking engaged.”
“It was just a struggle sometimes to sit down and just focus on it because there was a lot of work to get done,” said seventh grader Alex Sullivan, who was a pickpocket in Fagin’s gang.
The actors are not the only ones who had to work well for the performances to go well. The backstage crew also worked for many hours to ensure that they went smoothly. “Overall, backstage doesn’t get a lot of credit,” said eighth grader Anna Duffy, who was a member of the backstage crew. “We’re really the people you don’t see and think about… I like that about theater, that you can be a part of something without the pressure.” Students can learn about theater and participate in the musical without being on stage through stage crew, Duffy said.
Mr. Ratoff explained that “there is nothing easy about putting on a production. You’re dealing with the sets; you’re dealing with the [public relations]; you’re dealing with all these things, so it’s a big juggle.”
While putting on a production could be difficult, Mr. Ratoff loves the creative process. “I love the idea of working towards a production and working with kids, and helping them develop as actors,” he said.
Duffy said that the feeling after helping put on a performance stays the same no matter how well the actors or crew did. “It’s just this feeling of relief, where all your muscles [relax] and you can breathe again… Everyone starts smiling, even if they messed up… The cast and crew have been working on this for such a long time; the buildup is intense. It’s just so easy to breathe again,” she said.
After all of the work that the cast and crew put in, “the performances all went really well,” Mr. Ratoff said. “What I loved about it was watching them work as a whole group. It wasn’t just individual actors on stage; it was a whole cast working together to create a story.”
Sixth grader Danielle Hajjar enjoyed working as part of a cast, and the experience in general. Hajjar played Mrs. Sowerberry, an undertaker. She encouraged students to try out for the musical. “Just being in a play itself is a great experience,” Hajjar said.
Lindsay encouraged students to try out for the musical. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said. “It changes the way you see theater.”
Participating in the musical is a great way to learn about theater, and it is also a way for more students in the middle school to interact with other students who they wouldn’t usually interact with. Mr. Ratoff said, “I love the idea that we’re not a separate grade level school, that we are embracing a fifth through eighth kind of environment. The musical is a great vehicle for that.”