Arts Mixtape

Opera set in Stalin's era premieres at LaGuardia High School
By Ellen Freilich


LaGuardia High School
100 Amsterdam Avenue (SW corner of W. 65th Street and Amsterdam)
Thursday May 3 7:30 p.m.
Friday May 4 7:30 p.m.
Saturday May 5 7:30 p.m.
Sunday May 6 2 p.m.
Tickets $20

Two Broadway artists and the real-life high school that inspired the movie "Fame" have put their heads together to create an opera about artists trying to make a movie musical in Stalin's Russia.

The opera will had its world premiere on May 3.

"Life of the Party," by the husband and wife team of Nell Benjamin and Lawrence O'Keefe -- known for their work on the Broadway show "Legally Blond: The Musical," as well as "Cam Jansen" and "Sarah, Plain and Tall" for Theaterworks USA -- was written for New York City's Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

Benjamin and O'Keefe said their work was inspired by an 1997 documentary, "East Side Story," about Soviet movie musicals that tried to be both ideologically correct and entertaining.

"This documentary about the brave artists who made movie musicals in Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries enthralled us," said Benjamin. "The idea of a life or death struggle to make something as silly as a musical struck us as dark and absurd at the same time. And we love dark and absurd."

As the team explored the idea, they saw both its complexity and challenges.

"At first we thought just of the absurdity: the comedy of having to compose a musical about meeting grain production quotas," Benjamin said. "But when you read some of the history of the Stalin era and discover the extent of the repression and tragedy, you can't just make a silly comedy out of it because that would do a disservice to the people who lived though it."

Then they saw their friend Paul Lincoln direct "Kismet" at LaGuardia High School.

"Paul and the students did an amazing job on 'Kismet,' with very little rehearsal time and very little budget so when we were asked if we would consider writing an original opera for LaGuardia, we were thrilled," she said.

But Benjamin and O'Keefe had never written an opera.

"Then we remembered our old idea about people making Soviet movie musicals and somehow doing such a show with the school's opera program helped add the dignity and gravity that would balance our anarchic and facetious tendencies," she said.

Working in a public school setting, the authors' main compensation was being able to develop their work with a cast of 65 vocally gifted student actors and a 45-member orchestra, two or three times as big as any orchestra in a Broadway pit.

The students were also ready to put in lots of rehearsal time, several hours a day after school and some Saturdays. Work began at the start of the academic year.

"We got the music in intervals," said Danielle Bavli, a student whose early work in opera was as a member of the children's chorus at the Metropolitan Opera, just across the street from where she now attends high school.

"With 'Life of the Party,' the writers would write; then they would change things," Bavli said. "Since we were part of the creative process, the writers were able to write to people's strengths. It's an intimate process because you're learning from each other."

The opera, which takes place between Stalin's last birthday celebration in December 1952 and his death on March 5, 1953, concerns a talented film director suddenly summoned from the gulag to direct a Soviet movie musical to compete with the MGM musicals being produced by Hollywood.

"Life of the Party" includes spoken dialogue, often characteristic of light opera, but it's about dark times: a time of fear, betrayals, imprisonment and death spawned by, and sustaining, a reign of terror responsible for the death and suffering of tens of millions of people.

In one scene depicting a common illusion, relatives of people trying to find loved ones who have suddenly disappeared, sing: "If I could tell Stalin, he would save my brother, reprieve my cousin, free my father, find my daughter."

Despite this dark backdrop, however, a bunch of people have come together to try to film a musical, even if it is on Stalin's orders. Set in Georgia, where Stalin was born, the film is to be a kind of Stalin biopic called "The Happy Bandit." Everyone associated with it figures the film is bound to offend Stalin in some way and that the project amounts to a death sentence for all of them.

Yet the making of a film becomes the light story within the darker one. There is a leading actress and, of course, two men are in love with her. And despite everything, the characters mostly pull together in artistic common cause.

And this common cause is what bound the writers of "Life of the Party" with the students at LaGuardia High School and the other adult collaborators. Evan Adamson's set is reminiscent of the constructivist philosophy that originated in Russia in 1919 and favored art for social purposes. The same is true of the theater poster rendered by student Mariya Khoruzhik.

The high school's ethnically rich population also helped refine certain details, O'Keefe said. "Students with Russian backgrounds pointed out that a character would not introduce herself as Masha, but with her full name and patronymic: Maria Maximovna Zarubina," he said.

The production's 192 costumes, designed by Michael Hannah from the Broadway show "Spider-Man Turn off the Dark," include everyday clothes as well as more lavish costumes worn when the movie musical is being filmed.

Still, the collaboration between the Broadway composers and the students was an act of bravery in itself.

"It's a very adult piece with some difficult themes," Benjamin said. "You also don't have the assurance that previous audiences have enjoyed the show.
"The students took a leap of faith with us each day and that was hugely inspiring and humbling to us."

Friday was the first full rehearsal on the main stage and in costume.

"Everyone is really excited about it right now," Bavli said. "On the stage, in the costumes, everything came together so magically. It looks amazing and sounds amazing."

Bernice G. Fleischer, producer
MaryAnn Swerdfeger, artistic director
Joseph Meyers, conductor
Paul Lincoln, director

Evan Adamson, set designer
Antoinette DiPietropolo, choreographer
Michael Hannah, costume designer
Farley Whitfield, lighting designer

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