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The Making of the Faculty Musical: A Q&A with Mr. Nilsson
Emma Earls '20 Features Editor
April 24, 2019

Why did you write it? What inspired you to write it?

No real reason other than joy.  It’s joyous to write and perform music, to work with colleagues, to reflect on the things we do, and to create shared experiences for a community.  There is a backstory, though.

A handful of years ago, former Academic Dean Peter Warsaw pulled aside a few faculty members with music backgrounds and said that for ages he had wanted to put together a musical satirizing boarding school.

I said I was in, but we never started the work, and I wasn’t so sure that I was up for the genre of a musical.

But then Hamilton came around, which felt like it gave permission to write musicals in a contemporary style that feels much more natural to me.  Once I heard Hamilton, I started thinking more about the project.  It started to sound like fun — just a great way to reflect on this really unusual place where we all live and work.  It was a total joy to write.

Teachers performing musicals, though, often turn into skits that are laughed at, and not with, and I wanted to put something together that instead was relatable, that spoke truth about student and teacher experiences and used satire to poke fun at schools, at everyone.  It seemed important to make something that students could see themselves in, and spoke to them in a voice that was real so they said, “Yes!  That is so true!”

When did you create the musical? How long did the entire process take?

The first character and melody ideas emerged about two years ago in the spring of 2017.  One year after that  — last spring, 2018 — I had enough together that I began to see a fuller narrative and musical arc.  But I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, and so I asked musician extraordinaire Sam Watson if he would partner with me on it.  So we started in earnest last spring, about a year ago.

It was around that time that I also began to scour the internet for readings about the structures of one act plays and one act musicals.  I read about when to use song and why, about how the central conflict of the show must be established in the first song, about how many or how few narrative challenges you can fit in a shortened time block, etc.  This kind of reading and research into the form was necessary to feel confident working in the genre.

What did the process look like? How much of it did you, personally, organize? Who else was a part of the process?

I wrote the book of the show — which is all the lyrics and text — and Sam Watson and I both wrote the music.  You can thank him for the catchy tune for “Crickets and Chatter,” for the awesome EDM/dubstep remix in the closing dance number, and for the brilliant orchestrations and arrangements throughout.  Sam’s technical expertise with software, recording, and arranging were invaluable to the success of the show.

Sam and I set out to meet weekly, and missed many of those weeks, but set a schedule of deadlines.  By the end of last spring we had three main characters, a narrative arc, a list of songs, genres for each songs, some melodies, and strategies for how the story would advance — a full outline of the show.

We knew what elements of school life we wanted to send up, and we knew we wanted to use those elements to advance the central tension for each of the characters, which is the same for all of them: What is boarding school?  Is this place for me?

We set a schedule to have a full script by the beginning of this past October, full first draft of the music by Thanksgiving, a revision of the script by the first week of December, and a revision of the music before everyone left for winter break.

How did you coordinate with the faculty? How long had they been involved? What were their jobs like?

I began talking informally with a few teachers last spring, and then started to pitch it to other faculty this fall.  When Sam and I had a full draft of the script and a full draft of the music in mid-December, we called together a dozen or so faculty and did a full listen-through.  Enough people agreed to see where it would go that we continued.

It was a real leap of faith for those teachers to agree early on.  Does it sound fun, especially if you’re not an experienced musician, to get up in front of 650 teenagers and potentially look ridiculous?  A musical sounds silly.  The challenge was that the material needed to be authentic and accessible enough, and the music needed to be cool or engaging enough that everyone would feel it was real and not just embarrassing.

We learned a lot from that read-through.  It helps that many in our faculty have deep musical theater experience (including people like Ms. Clark in the Arts department, who was in the cast of the original Broadway production of Wicked!), and so we received a ton of good feedback, the best of which was to be merciless: cut everything that isn’t essential.

So we cut a song, slashed several others by minutes of length, and removed subplots that weren’t necessary.

We eventually made the critical decision to pre-record everything except for the opening and closing verses, which I would perform.  This was a huge relief to everyone, because teachers don’t have time to learn lines or to rehearse.  (“Sorry, no time here!  Please follow your directions!”)  It took enormous pressure off the cast, but also meant we had to record everyone in advance.

So, Sam and I met with and recorded individual teachers during free periods and in between meetings.  We were able to then assemble a full audio version of basically the whole show, and send it to teachers to listen to on their own time to prepare.

In the end, aside from Ms. Lareau and Mr. Grimm, who both put in extra time doing separate read throughs and recording sessions, as a full cast we had only two rehearsals, and neither of them actually had more than 60% of the full cast.

The first rehearsal was three days before the performance, and the second rehearsal was the night before school meeting.  A handful of teachers even stayed behind afterwards the night before to run all the scene changing cues again.  We hadn’t run the show a single time with a full cast before you saw it at school meeting.

If you’d asked me on Tuesday night whether this would go over well or fall flat, I wouldn’t really have been able to say one way or the other.

It’s a testament to the commitment of the 26 people involved that it came together like it did.

What are you/Deerfield going to do with it?

No plans, except to post the tracks online, which a number of students have asked for.  It was meant to be something to broaden and brighten our days, something that would show a little of who we are, and give ourselves permission to be more of who we want to be.

But as for a bigger stage: the references in the show are so specific, I don’t know that they are transferable to other settings other than a school meeting.

Mr. Watson and I deliberately avoided the question of whether this would have a life afterwards.

But hey, if anyone reading this interview wants to produce an off-Broadway musical about boarding schools, give us a ring.