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Music Theatre students get tips from award-winning writer, composer

It was more than the crisp fall Friday afternoon that drew students from the School of Music's Musical Theatre Department to the Power Center Rehearsal Room. They gathered in anticipation of a special event: the opportunity to work with Andrew Lippa.

Lippa, a 1987 graduate of the School of Music, wrote the music and co-wrote the book for "john & jen," next up on the Musical Theatre Department's performance schedule.
Andrew Lippa, seated at the piano, with (left to right) student director Jeremy Leiner and School of Music students Paul Wyatt and Tara Siesener. (Photo courtesty of the School of Music)

The Nov. 1 gathering was a master class in auditioning. Seven students had been selected to perform; one by one they were called to the front to sing selections from a musical. Lippa gave instructions for improving their performances.

"Someone has just thrown down the gauntlet," Lippa instructed one female student about the character whose song she was singing. "You're defiant ... convince me."

To another, he said: "Try to discover the song as you go along, like this is new to you right now and you're just working it out." And to another student, who sang a comic song, he said, "You're telling the audience it's funny before it's funny. Start out sincere and serious; don't give it all away at first."

With just these few observations and words of guidance, songs were transformed from good to better. "Can you hear the difference?" he asked after adjustments to one song. The wave of applause was his answer.

Later that evening, and again the next morning, the focus shifted to the upcoming production of "john & jen." The cast had the rare opportunity of rehearsing with one of the show's creators, and Lippa was able to give them first-hand coaching on how the songs should be sung and acted, in spite of a lingering cold that nearly took away his voice.

Lippa graduated from U-M with a degree in voice. He later wrote the book, music and lyrics for "The Wild Party," which won both the Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway musical and the Drama Desk Award for best music of 2000. Lippa also contributed three new songs to the Broadway version of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," including "My New Philosophy" which was sung by Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth on the Tony telecast. He currently is working on several projects for stage and film, including music for "A Little Princess," which is being readied to go to Broadway in 2003.

Performances of "john & jen" will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Nov. 15, and 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Arena Theatre in the Frieze Building. Admission is free. The play will be directed by student Jeremy Leiner, Tara Siesener will play Jen and Paul Wyatt is John.

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