After the success of Lovett’s magical production of Peter Pan, Director Natalie Pitchford went on the hunt for the next spring musical smash hit. “After I do one show, I tend to want to start working on a show that’s completely the opposite, and that was Footloose,” she says. Not only was the 80’s classic grittier and darker then Peter Pan, but “Footloose is a musical with a lot of meaning,” she explains. “I wanted to do something that was newer and this show went on Broadway in the late 90s. I also knew that the music would sit in the student’s ears more than some of the shows that have been done in the past.” In the end, “It just seemed like the right choice.”
By May of 2018, pre-production on Footloose had already commenced, with Mrs. Pitchford meeting with set designers from Koch and Associates to plan the three-story scaffolding based set. This trip was followed by tech meetings between Director Pitchford and Head of Lighting Production Wesley Forlines. It was in these meetings where the true technical vision of the show was born. The only thing that was missing was actors and actresses to bring the production of Footloose from paper to the stage.
This past October the casting process commenced for the spring musical, by far the most competitive in many years. 41 students auditioned and 41 were cast. When it comes to choosing actors, “I definitely don’t precast. Ever. Not even a little bit,” says Mrs. Pitchford. “Of course, it is important to take into account your overall casting pool before a show. But, quite honestly, I didn’t know what my casting pool was going to be like for this show.”
Director Natalie Pitchford explains that “casting is based on auditions. Who does well in their audition, who comes in prepared, who has clearly worked for it and has a purpose are the people that get the parts,” she says. “I reward hard work and commitment and I think we really saw that in our leads this year. I think the people that were the leads were the people that came in in October and were already ready to do the show.”
By not pre-casting, Pitchford made spade for a musical theater newcomer like sophomore Marshall Smith to nail the lead role of Ren McCormack. Marshall found his high school musical theater beginnings in the fall production of Island Song. Before high school Marshall had limited experience singing, only being involved in the State Honor Chorus in 6th grade. “I hadn’t sung in so long it seemed silly to ever audition for a musical. I didn’t think I was any good,” he recalls.
Marshall first met Mrs. Pitchford when she came to help the production of The Dining Room with a singing scene. “Afterwards, she told me I was trying out for the musical, and if I didn’t she would personally hunt me down and make sure I did,” he laughs.
That little push seems to be all Marshall needed, as he did audition for Island Song, “which is, to date, one of the best experiences with a show I’ve ever had,” he says. “After such a great experience, auditioning for Footloose was a no-brainer. I couldn’t pass up that kind of opportunity again.” However, no past experiences could prepare him for the next role he would take on: Ren McCormack. “To be completely honest, it was extremely frightening when I got the news,” he says.
Since boot camp began in December, “the rehearsal process has been grueling” said Marshall the week leading up to the show. “Not like we are being overworked,” he clarified, “but I’ve never experience such a trifecta of creativity being put to use: dancing, singing, acting.” Performers were required to return from winter break completely off-book on lines and songs, plus completely memorized on two full dance numbers.
Each actor and actress faced his or her own challenges throughout the rehearsals. For Marshall, his stumbling block was finding balance and patience. “During the show, we had to also focus on staying healthy and being able to actually perform… in addition to everything else,” he says. “In most things in life if you push yourself to do more, like studying longer hours for a test or training harder for a marathon, you will see better results. But this is not the case when it comes to performing. Sometimes, you have to be patient and hold back so you can perform better at the end of the week. It’s almost counterintuitive and therein lies my personal problem.”
“I was just glad I didn’t have to kiss anyone,” says Junior Fritz VanWinkle, who played character Willard Hewitt. “I feel like trying not to laugh in those kissing scenes would have been my biggest challenge.” Luckily for him and for audience members, Fritz was cast as the adorable, soft spoken Willard, who becomes Ren’s best friend in Bomont.
Fritz originally started performing in the musicals at Lovett as a requirement of the Lovett Singers program. He had so much fun in past years however, that he decided to continue performing even after the two programs separated. During the rehearsal process, “transitioning from real life in order to dive into such an extreme character every day was difficult,” says Fritz. As a Varsity athlete, “I am not performing year-round, so it took a few days to get used to it.”
Another daunting aspect of this year’s Footloose is the amount of dancing the production has taken on. “The biggest challenge, besides learning all of my lines and songs, was definitely the dancing,” agrees Meme Greene. In Footloose, Meme starred as supporting actress Rusty, bringing smiles and giggles with each line. “I think I’m a lot like Rusty in real life. She is smiley, energetic, and of course, love-struck,” admits Meme. “Rusty is also quite ditsy and air headed, which are traits that come out of me sometimes!”
In the end, because dancing was the hardest part, it made putting the moves together even more satisfying. For example, “when Fritz and I finally figured out our dance for Let’s Hear it for the Boy, it made the whole song come together,” says Meme. “Mastering it allowed me to have more fun with the song and take more risks with my character’s personality.”
The most ironic part of the interviews I conducted was the resounding negative opinion on the original movie Footloose. Before the show was announced, very few students were familiar with the movie if at all, including me, Meme, Fritz, and Marshall. Even Director Natalie Pitchford wasn’t a fan of the movie growing up. “I still don’t really like the movie,” she admits. “I actually think it is kind of strange. Plus, none of the songs from the show are in the movie either!”
Maybe, though, it is this separation from the movie that made Lovett’s stage production a unique show. Though she is not a fan of the original film, this is not Mrs. Pitchford’s first time cutting Footloose, nor her second time either. After all this exposure to the show, Mrs. Pitchford came in with lots of ideas on how to take the show in a new direction. “I went really back and forth on the presentation of the show,” she recalls. “I thought that early on that I might do a very political take on the show. And I decided that that choice might alienate some people, so I decided against it.” Instead, the show was brimming with message of all sorts, including Censorship vs. Freedom and the power of healing. In the end, “I also think there is value in just telling a story,” Pitchford says. “It’s better to let the audience draw their own connections than trying to beat a theme over their heads.”
As for next year, you can expect “growth,” says Mrs. Pitchford. “This was my 5th show at Lovett and this is still a relatively new age group for me… but I always look forward to getting to know a new show and getting to know students in a new way.”
The Lovett Musical Theater department is already on the hunt for the next spring show. The Pitchfords even spent the Sunday afternoon following the closing night of Footloose “watching bootlegs of shows for next year,” Mrs. Pitchford says. “It is something that we are both so passionate about and I am so excited for what is to come.”