Upcoming Events: How “Curtain Up!” Brings Broadway to Berklee

PHOTO: facebook.com/curtainupberklee

by Stephanie L. Carlin

On April 23, 2010, an audience gathered in a packed David Friend Recital Hall for a new kind of concert that hadn’t been done at Berklee. The concert featured 15 original new songs from 21 students in the musical theatre writing classes at Berklee. The concert was “Curtain Up!” and since then, it has become a tradition not just in the musical theatre community at Berklee, but across local colleges like Emerson, who collaborate with students to write film scripts in one of the classes. The show features Berklee and Boston Conservatory students performing and orchestrated by students under a 19-piece orchestra directed and conducted by Berklee students.

“Audiences are generally astounded by the amount of talent on stage during one evening,” says Kevin Bleau, a harmony teacher and coordinator of “Curtain Up!”  “It’s such a great opportunity to see Berklee students excel in so many musical and theatrical disciplines: singer/actors, instrumentalists, lyricists, composers, orchestrators, stage managers, choreographers, directors (new this year), props/costume designers.”

The show was created due to an interest in musical theatre writing at Berklee as far back as 1998, when harmony faculty Michael Wartofsky was first starting out.

“Jack Perricone, then Chair of the Songwriting Department, allowed me to run a prototype course on the heels of earning my MFA from Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program,” he said, “SW-345 [Musical Theater Writing 1] is the heart and soul of the Minor, as it’s the first course in which composers and lyricists team up on songwriting for specific characters and dramatic situations.  After I taught some more at NYU in the summer of 2007, I proposed a second level course SW-445 allowing students to explore the full arc of a story, and co-conceive highlights of a full-length musical together. Jeanine Cowen, in her previous role as Dean of Curriculum, encouraged me to propose a Minor.”

The concert receives submissions from many students on campus, regardless if they have taken the classes or not. The conception for the concert, however, not only came from a strong interest in musical theatre writing but also in orchestration, according to Michael.

“It’s all Jeri Sykes’s fault! When she started teaching Orchestration and Arranging for Musical Theater, we came up with the idea of replicating among our students the collaboration you so often find in the musical theater industry between songwriters and orchestrators. Professional composers, lyricists and bookwriters are so often in rehearsal making last minute changes on their show, there’s no time for the composer to also orchestrate the show. In comes the orchestrator, and it’s not only pragmatic, but it allows another creative partner into the process.”

The concert has only grown in recent years thanks in part to the establishment of the Berklee Theater Arts Collaborative (BTAC) that focuses on all theatre happening at Berklee. BTAC is responsible for “Curtain Up,” and a lot of musical theatre events on and off campus. This includes information sessions on the business of theatre, interviewing alumni like Broadway orchestrators August Eriksmoen and Alex Lacamoire and master classes with Broadway composers Jeanine Tesori and Adam Guettel. Even now, it continues to grow thanks to a second level course for musical theatre orchestration, and just last year the concert was moved to the BPC.

“Everything is bigger in the BPC,” says Jeri Sykes, arranging teacher and coordinator of “Curtain Up!”. “More songs, a bigger orchestra, fancier lighting.  It’s a challenge to put it all together in such a short amount of time – but it’s worth it!”
Thanks to the growth in everything from the band to the stage, Michael Wartofsky could not be more proud of the work Berklee students have created.

“[Audiences] won’t believe that the songs were all written and orchestrated by students – they sound like Broadway hits already!”

You can catch the 8th Annual “Curtain Up!” concert in the Berklee Performance Center on April 3rd at 8pm.

Are you planning to attend this event? Let us know in the comments.