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Sandy Journal

Innovative Union musical revue teaches students to adapt; allows audience to experience intimate productions

Mar 01, 2024 02:33PM ● By Julie Slama

Union Middle School students performed songs from past musicals, including “Newsies,” in their own production, “UMS Musicals: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” (Photo courtesy of Union Middle School)

Union eighth-grader Carter Backman walked from pod to pod in his school, seeing excerpts of a dozen musicals his school had put on through the years. 

It was this year’s school production called “UMS Musicals: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.”

“A lot of kids had been practicing for a long time and it was performed so everybody could come walk around our new building while seeing parts of all these shows,” he said. “It turned out great. I liked seeing the variety of shows our school has done in its history and seeing how they could use our building as different performing venues. They came together at the end in the cafeteria as the finale.”

Union Middle, which was rebuilt on the same campus, opened this school year; however the auditorium still is under construction because of a shortage of labor and materials, said Leon Wilcox, Canyons School District’s business administrator.

The moving musical production was a solution to not having an auditorium ready in time for a first-term production, said Brooke Grant, Union’s drama teacher who directed the show along with music teacher David Christensen and dance teacher Roxanne Paulsen.

“We wanted to make sure these students had a performance opportunity in spite of the auditorium not being done,” she said. “We decided that a musical revue of songs from some of our shows in the past as a musical tour around the school, would allow the audience to experience the new building. We had student tour guides move the groups to classrooms, which once you open the garage doors, it allowed it to act as a mini-proscenium. We timed it so we had a tour upstairs and a different tour downstairs and then ended together with the full audience in the cafeteria.”

It took a great amount of coordination. Each night, for four nights, there were two tour groups upstairs and two downstairs. Each night, the directors, parent volunteers and stage crew moved desks and set up hundreds of chairs in each performance venue. Afterwards, they’d put them back in classroom order.

“They joke we should have Ph.D.s in spreadsheets because the logistics of doing multiple stages, with varying lengths of songs sung by 150 students to end at the same times while moving 50- or 60-member audiences was crazy, but the audience liked the more intimate production venues and they could see their kid perform up close and not have to sit through a long production. We chose songs that we could cast a lot of kids in and that an audience could come into and see how well the song makes sense out of context of the full show.”

There were songs from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown;” “Spamalot;” “James and the Giant Peach;” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat;” “Thoroughly Modern Millie;” “Newsies;” “Seussical the Musical;” “Music Man;” “Beauty and the Beast;” and “The Addams Family.” The last two numbers brought the productions class together to perform a song from “Annie” and the entire cast to perform a hit from “High School Musical.”

“When we first moved into this building, everyone mentioned how much the cafeteria reminded them of ‘High School Musical.’ So, we decided to have the finale number be ‘We’re All in This Together’ from ‘High School Musical.’ The audience sat at the cafeteria tables and the kids danced and sang around them and then up that grand staircase. It was absolutely a fitting finale,” she said.

The directors also worked with stage crew students and the tour guides to make sure the production tour ran smoothly.

“We invested in walkie talkies and were able to communicate that way,” she said. “We also used portable speakers because we couldn’t have body mics in that many locations. We used makeshift lighting, but that allowed our kids to learn different skills and learn to be adaptable and problem solve. Our tour guides wrote their own scripts and researched the shows they were introducing so they could give the audience background information and tell them about the new Union.”

Once they figured out the tours and songs, it still wasn’t smooth sailing.

“We had stored our costumes during the move and one of our challenges was that everything from the old building was still packed. Then, we were missing a bunch of it for a large portion of them during the transfer from the old building to this one,” she said. “We had boxes and boxes on pallets backstage ready to be moved. We eventually found some that were moved to a trailer, but we also had many parent volunteers who were amazing and helped with costumes, so everyone was able to perform in costume.”

This was sixth-grader Azaylea Olson’s first middle school performance. She was excited to be part of the “Newsies” ensemble after watching Union perform it last year.

She wore white capris, an apron and a Newsies hat.

“We learned our song over a couple of weeks; we only had about a month and a half to get the entire production together,” she said about her first play experience. “I’ve loved theater in general—singing, dancing, acting. That’s all in a musical so I thought it would be fun. It was, and I made some new friends that I probably wouldn’t have thought if I was just walking in the halls.”

Eighth-grader Charles Mills played Schroder in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” He, too, made friends through the musical.

“I met a lot of new people in the musical and it was really fun to have the experience with them,” he said. “We’re all in different grades, but we became friends. We all had our own solos so that was really fun.”

His friend, eighth-grader Alex Gonzalez studied his character, Gaston, in “Beauty and the Beast.” It was his first speaking role.

“I have a lot of anxiety, so preparing and then performing on stage helps me feel more confident,” he said, adding that he has been in musicals and plays previously. “I like performing and wanted to be in the musical because a lot of my friends are in it; it’s a good way to bond with friends.”

Brother and sister Jack and Emma Reich were excited to be in the production. For Jack, he realized as a sixth grader, it would be the only time he could perform with his eighth-grade sister. It was his first musical.

“I was in ‘Music Man,’” he said. “I learned how to move while singing. I learned that it’s a lot harder to hold a note for eight seconds while you’re going down to kneeling on one knee. But it was a lot of fun and I made a lot of friends.”

Emma played “Mayzie” and got to perform “Amazing Mayzie” and “Amazing Gertrude” in “Seussical.” 

“It was fun to do this hip hop, just to help flip our tails,” she said of the boa tails. “Everyone wore different colors and my costume was like a rainbow. I really like being able to perform in front of people. I’m definitely shy and I get stage fright so I was just really nervous about auditioning. I learned to be myself and it’s OK to be a little crazy. When we’re all out there in character, it’s just a lot of fun. I liked this year’s revue. It was a good introduction to the new Union, but also kind of saying goodbye to the old Union.”

Besides the friendships bonded and the skills acquired, Grant said there were a lot of lessons learned.

“It’s a completely different type of theater than we’ve ever done before and it was a lot of work,” she said. “We’re all proud of the students. It was rewarding to see the kids perform.” λ