Nearly one-third of Hillsdale’s campus is involved in the music program, but only a small number of people participate in the theatre department’s musicals each year, whether as a dedicated cast member or supportive onlooker in the audience. The Theatre Department could encourage participation and attendance by choosing popular, relevant productions that are universally recognized.
Musicals only spring up at Hillsdale every two years, but the long-awaited shows could attract a larger audience if the productions were more popular. Many of the shows Hillsdale produces aren’t very well-known among its Hillsdale audience.
Sophomore Abbey Bohrer, who played the lead in Hillsdale’s most recent production, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” said that the show sold out a few of the nights because it was full of parents in town for parent’s weekend.
“I think more students would come if they knew the show,” Bohrer said. “I think if we did something that was super well known like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or something it would be packed.”
When I first came to Hillsdale, I had an interest in musical theatre. So it was much to my chagrin that my school opted out of producing a musical every year, never mind every semester. But, hey, it’s a small school. I looked forward to my sophomore year when I’d get a shot at receiving one of the all-too-rare spots in a real collegiate musical.
Then I read the email announcement that the spring production was “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
After doing some research on the musical, it sounded intriguing. But I had never heard of the production before. I follow the theatre world closely; why should Hillsdale students, faculty, and locals who don’t, know and recognize “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”?
When asked what goes into choosing the musical, Chairman and Professor of Theatre and Dance James Brandon listed three criteria.
“They need to be appropriate for our audience,” he said. “They need to be within the skill range of our performers. They need to be appropriate for the educational needs of music, theatre, and dance.”
In a 1994 edition of The Collegian, Associate Professor of Theatre George W. Angell criticized those who didn’t appreciate the musicals chosen by claiming they don’t have the authority to dictate what’s good. Angell listed a series of questions that determine what does make for a good musical, but most of them were unanswerable to anyone but serious theatre students. One of his questions was, “Name Andrew Lloyd Weber’s latest Broadway musical.” ”
Angell continued, “‘Did you get 5 out of 6 [questions]?’…Oh, I get it. When you say we should be doing musicals you mean the handful of the most famous musicals that you, personally, remember.”
Just because the majority of Hillsdale students can’t answer obscure questions about the relevance of modern musical productions doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to weigh in on Hillsdale’s productions — of which they fill the audience. A suitable musical is what people know, enjoy, and want to come see: Isn’t that good?
Although Angell noted that practical costs such as a access to a limited number of performers, specifically a limited number of dancers, are a factor, he said they are less important than the philosophical cost of choosing a show based off of what the audience is familiar with.
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” has won five Tony Awards — an impressive feat that justifies the quality of the show. But that’s not all that matters. “Hamilton” won eleven Tony awards, and it’s beloved by millions, including many of Hillsdale’s students. “Beauty and the Beast” won eight Tony awards, and significantly more students are familiar with its famous “Be Our Guest” than Drood’s “The Garden Path to Hell.”
These musicals are popular for a reason. They’re familiar because they’re good, and the theatre department should take that into consideration when choosing the next musical production.
I might not be as artistically inclined as a theatre major who stars as the lead in the musical and has been classically trained, but the vast majority of campus isn’t either. The Theatre Department should be catering to the Hillsdale student body, not just the students in the program.
Hillsdale should encourage students of all backgrounds to grow by approaching the stage as a cast member or enjoying the show as an audience member, and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” just doesn’t cut it. Choosing universal, familiar productions would foster a greater love for the theater on Hillsdale’s campus — a noble end worth pursuing.