Tragedy Tomorrow: FWSMT Goes Full Throttle with Les Miserables
Les Miserables is one of the most iconic of Broadway musicals, and the epic story and staging provide a challenge in the best of times. Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre, founded by Kirby Volz more than 20 years ago, had big plans for their summer 2020, intending to stage two musicals instead of one for the first time ever. Fate had other plans however, and COVID forced the cancelation of both. Although one, American Idiot, is still on hold for the time being, Les Mis is on track to open this coming weekend and will run through the following weekend as well.
Pulling this off, even as the threat of COVID still exists, continues to require some planning. Andrew Sherman, now the executive program director, is used to following such protocols since he also teaches at Homestead High School.
“We follow closely what Arts United and the Civic Theatre are doing, and we are masked during rehearsals,” Sherman said. “Our production staff is fully vaccinated, and we make it clear to parents that masks are required until the moment they go on stage. We encourage students 12 and up to get the vaccine if they can. We want to continue to create but do so safely.”
With a cast of 67, there are a lot of moving parts to oversee, but Sherman was well trained for the challenge. A student of Volz’s at North Side High School, Sherman has been active on stage and off since he was a boy, and Volz has been his mentor through much of it. Now as he oversees students from around the area – 23 schools are represented by their students in the cast – Sherman appreciates the reputation the program now enjoys.
“Our Valjean is from Antwerp, Ohio, and we have a student from Goshen,” Sherman said. “The popularity of our program is thanks to Kirby and all of the work he’s done. Our audience base has grown so much, and students from all around the area want to be involved.”
Sherman said that COVID is just one of the obstacles in staging a show as large as Les Miserables. But meeting those challenges demonstrates the cooperative and collaborative spirit of the Fort Wayne theatre community.
“Our biggest challenges were technical and finding stage space that would meet COVID protocols. We also have anywhere from three to six costumes per cast member, and we’ve been pulling from all of our resources. Purdue Fort Wayne is a fantastic support line for us, and Jeanne Pendleton has been incredibly helpful. We’ve gotten help from other high schools – North Side, South Side, Homestead, Carroll – and we got props from Arena Dinner Theatre. The Civic has stepped up, and of course the University of Saint Francis was offering the space and a partnership.”
The greatest of USF’s contributions to the effort is the use of their downtown Performing Arts Center where Les Mis will be staged. With plenty of seating available, even those who wish to maintain social distancing can find comfort in the venue. Plus the largeness of the stage will go a long way toward making the big production numbers possible.
“The theatre allows for 1900 people safely distanced,” Sherman said. “Plus it’s such a great opportunity for our students to perform in such a historic place. When it was still the Scottish Rite, Martin Luther King spoke on that stage.”
One of the hallmarks of the two decades of Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre is the sense of collaboration among the students, and Sherman said the parents have really stepped up to the challenge too.
“The students are so supportive of each other and have shown such resilience. We had 130 show up for auditions. These students never thought they’d have a year with a lack of performances, and they are ready now to go full throttle. Overall the support has been amazing. The parents have shown up for set build dates. Everyone is asking ‘How can I help?’ and finding tasks that they can do from running the box office to concessions. Our alumni have been great too. Our props master and our assistant stage manager are both alums. It’s been a really rewarding thing.”
Mostly returning to the stage is the ultimate reward for Sherman and his cast and crew. Staging one of the most iconic musicals just makes it that much sweeter.
“I feel like we’re stepping over the finish line together,” Sherman said. “We’ve learned together how much we appreciate what we do, and we feel rejuvenated. We made it through this together, and the arts community has come through this together.”
Les Miserables runs July 23-25 and July 30-August 1. For tickets visit IMTFinc.com.