Making of a Musical Production

As students shelved their school backpacks, and prepared for summer vacation, some community members were pulling out notebooks and keyboards. They were planning a musical production that would be performed later in the summer in the amphitheater of Meramec Elementary School.

Clayton resident, Amy Gage, and CHS student, Ben Colagiovanni, were directing their energies in making an original musical, “Beyond the River’s Edge,” with the assistance of other Clayton community members.

The musicals are done through Meramec Community Cooperative, an organization dedicated to providing theater experience to young people in the community. It started 11 years ago through several different community members including Gage and has raised thousands of dollars for charities.

Gage says that she began thinking of a theme for “Beyond the River’s Edge” the night after last year’s musical.

“I just couldn’t get the idea of a cool hippo out of my head,” Gage said. “I kept fighting it, and tried to write a show about dancing shoes and socks, but somehow, the “hip” hippo kept returning. Thus, Zulu, the hippo, on an adolescent journey along the river’s edge, was born.”

Gage worked long hours to write the script and lyrics; she constructs a story every year for the Meramec Community Cooperative.

“I usually work out the plot and storyline for the show in my head (and with any friend who will listen) over long walks down Wydown,” Gage said. “In April, I commit to my idea, and we begin producing flyers so kids can sign up. I write the script and lyrics over about six or seven weeks in May and June, often late at night, on napkins, in the car, and over dinner conversations.”

CHS Senior and composer Colagiovanni describes the music-writing as exciting, but the inspiration coming in spurts.

“I literally was putting music to lyrics. I broke up the composing into parts, and tried to finish around two songs a day,” Colagiovanni said. “I sometimes would get around three to four songs done in one day, while on other days I did not finish anything. It depended on my creative energy.”

Three weeks later, Colagiovanni completed the music-writing, and then met with Gage for final decisions. Different youth in the community offered their help in this production, by then learning the songs, and in the making of the practice CD.

Participants got the practice CDs in the month of July, so the future actors could start learning the music.

In contrast to other St. Louis drama productions that also perform self-written original plays such as PIWACKET Theater Company, the “Beyond the River’s Edge” cast only practices for four days before the first performance at Sunrise in Clayton, a Clayton nursing home. They performed on Aug. 12 at Sunrise in Clayton and that evening in the Meramec Elementary School amphitheater.

Gage says that one of the most critical components of actually putting the musical is the help of volunteers.

“High school and middle school students sing on our learning CD, assist in directing the show, build props, signs, and sets, take photos, choreograph songs, and work with small groups of kids each day during practice to help them learn lines and dances,” Gage said.

One such youth volunteer was Senior Andrea Stiffelman.

“I have been able to learn about connecting with younger people and relating to them,” Stiffelman said. “Now older, I can also learn about the work that is behind the scenes such as the script and the song-writing.”

She feels that these musicals provide a unique opportunity for youngsters.

“It allows 4-year-olds to connect with each other, in something that overcomes age and attention-spans,” Stiffelman said. “Children are always a good way to bring adults together while in an environment that is non-stressful, or competitive, but simply to have fun. It is a good way to end the summer.”

The process of making a musical is an arduous road, but is also very rewarding.

“I am always proud to see the great turn-out we get each year for our final performance,” Colagiovanni said. “The neighborhood really supports the show in every respect, from parents volunteering to help make costumes, to grandparents helping their kids learn their lines, to uncles and aunts volunteering to bring snacks for after rehearsals, to local middle and high school students helping choreograph dances, and of course the kids putting their whole hearts into making the show great. It’s really a wonderful thing to see.”

Gage and Colagiovanni have copyrighted “Beyond the River’s Edge,” and plan to continue to draw upon their skills in the making of musicals that promote theater experience and community unity.

“Putting on a musical production is a wonderful community builder because it involves so many people of all different ages, all with unique strengths and talents,” Gage said. “We come together to create something really special that everyone can be proud of—all born from a simple idea.”