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Caroline Prugh and Bobby Cronin, writers of the SDSU Master of Fine Arts musical theater production "'Til Death Do Us Part" Caroline Prugh and Bobby Cronin, writers of the SDSU Master of Fine Arts musical theater production "'Til Death Do Us Part"
 


New Musical is a Collaborative Work in Progress

SDSU students staging a brand-new show aren’t just learning a craft, they’re providing immediate feedback for the writers.
By Jeff Ristine
 

“The actors totally get it.”

As the writers behind a new musical being produced at San Diego State University watched theater students perform a reading of their work, the creative wheels in their heads were still turning.

When the cast got to page 81, bookwriter Caroline Prugh scribbled “song?” next to a heated argument between two sisters, and Bobby Cronin, the composer/lyricist, immediately thought to himself, “Oh, yeah, that’s a song.” Cronin asked Emmy Farese, the actress playing the older sister, which were her favorite notes to sing (her response: D/E flat). He began writing music in his hotel room that night and tested it with Farese the next day.

The result was “What About Me?,” a dramatic high point in the middle of the second act of “’Til Death Do Us Part,” and a reminder of the unique character  of the initiative underway in SDSU’s Master of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre program.

Spearheaded by program head Rob Meffe and director/choreographer Stephen Brotebeck, the initiative is keeping a creative team together for two full years as they work to perfect the musical for a full-scale stage production at SDSU in spring 2020. “’Til Death” was selected from more than 100 submissions.

The cast and writers first met last fall to walk through the musical, the story of a young woman who marries the fifth in a line of preachers at a Southern church and aspires—against considerable resistance—to join the ministry herself.

For phase II of the project, the 12-member student cast gave up their spring break to rehearse for eight hours a day over a full week, ending with a limited production (no curtain, no set design, minimal props) of the musical before a small invited audience at the Don Powell Theatre.

A week of work

Cronin and Prugh were there every day. Both based in New York and working together for the first time, the two writers said SDSU’s experiment has already borne fruit. During a break in the middle of the one-week workshop, Cronin said the production format “gives us an opportunity to play around and really make a lot of discoveries.”

“What About Me?” is just one example. Sandwiched between two ballads, it’s a more rockin’ song from a woman fed up with cleaning up her younger sister’s messes and living in her shadow.

“I don’t think we would have come up with this idea and had this song happen if we weren’t here (for the workshop),” Cronin said.

“’Til Death Do Us Part” is loosely if not improbably inspired by a 2006 true-crime incident that made the cover of People magazine and was turned into a Lifetime Network movie. It explores a seemingly perfect relationship that ends in tragedy—all there in the title—while taking up issues of faith, forgiveness, hope, and fear.

Prugh said she wanted to look at “women’s ambition (and) the trouble it can make for existing institutions. “In this case we’re dealing with both religion and family simultaneously.”

The show is set during the Clinton/Bush years, but Cronin said he told the cast to think of parallels to the recent college admissions scandal, just days old when the workshop was being held, and the notions of privilege that favor Matthew (played by Shayne Mims) to inherit a preaching position ahead of Grace (Annie Barrack), whose knowledge of scripture is at least equal to that of her husband and father-in-law.

“The actors totally get it,” Cronin said. “With this type of time, we get to pull out of the actors the double meaning and sometimes even triple meaning of certain lyrics in the piece.”

Julia Brown, a longtime theater program supporter who is underwriting the initiative, attended the workshop performance and was impressed with how far the show has come. The student actors “are just amazingly talented, it’s like they’re professionals already,” she said. “They’re so polished.”

More changes

Prugh and Cronin sat in the back of the theater as the cast and a four-piece band tested the musical. As it turned out, they weren’t through working. By intermission, Cronin said he had started thinking of a different beginning that would scrap scenes set at a Bible college where Grace and Matthew first meet, and start instead with Matthew bringing home his new wife.

He’s re-writing the whole top of the show.

Read how the New Musical Initiative was started: A Stage of Development
 

 
'Til Death Do Us Part
Theater students gave up their spring break to rehearse a new musical, scheduled to premiere at SDSU in 2020.