With live performances temporarily on pause during the covid-19 pandemic, this year’s Upper School musical took on the form of a video revue comprised of a half-dozen songs and a few short scenes. 

The show, which premiered on penncharter.com in May, featured a cast of 12 students who recorded much of their own video and audio from home. Theater teacher Michael Roche directed and edited the production with support from Upper School faculty members Ari Baker, Joe Fitzmartin and Liz Jones. 

Roche’s approach to developing the musical was all about “variety, variety, variety.” 

“You can’t just give people the same thing for 25 minutes,” he said, so selecting a wide range of musical styles was important, as was including sketches to break up the songs. 

Song choices ran the gamut from contemporary musical theater favorites (“Opening Up” from 2015’s Waitress), Broadway classics (“You’re the One That I Want” from 1971’s Grease) and Top-40 hits by the Jackson 5 and ABBA. 

7 high school kids have stop hands out. 3 stand on table above the four

The musical marked the Upper School’s second virtual production of this school year after a Zoom-based reenactment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream premiered in October 2020. Working on the fall play taught Roche that putting together a video-based production can be “a very time-consuming process” that brings its own set of technical challenges and generally requires several rounds of back-and-forth between director and students as they finalize their performances. So when it came time to plan the musical, Roche got things started early, in February, to avoid last-minute scrambling. 

To help make the process as straightforward as possible, Roche and students created storyboards for each video before setting off to record their parts individually. Instrumental backing tracks, created by the songs’ arrangers and licensed for use, provided the musical foundation onto which students recorded their vocal performances. Then, in a second stage, students recorded their on-screen performances, lip-syncing against the finished audio track. This two-step process allowed cast members to capture the highest quality audio and video. 

Students collaborated with Roche to write the short scenes that are interspersed between songs, and many brought the video-making skills they honed while working on other virtual performances—like the student-run open mic series, Showcase—in recent months. And while this year’s format was certainly a departure from the norm, Roche believes that, whether on stage or on screen, a show’s success comes down to the very same thing: good performances. 

“If there’s a lot of heart and love behind it, it’s going to shine through on camera,” he said. “And we have a lot of that.”