Theater students innovate, inspire with ‘The Addams Family Musical’

Before the pandemic, students across the 5Cs were prepping for a first-time theater collaboration, “The Addams Family Musical.” But when campuses abruptly closed last March, the students were left wondering how their ambitious production could still work. The answer? Pivot from a live theater production to a remote and socially distanced film shoot.

“We all knew there would be a lot of challenges,” said Maxwell Fine ’21, executive producer of the musical. “Nobody had any experience doing movies, let alone movies where nobody can be in the same room.”

“Whenever you do a live theater production, you already know that a dozen things are going to go wrong every day. With this production, a million things went wrong every week,” said Hershey Suri, a Pomona senior and director of the movie. “But that’s what made it fun. We were able to come up with solutions and work together.”

Those 45 students from Claremont McKenna College’s “Under the Lights” and Pomona College’s “The Green Room” and “Spotlight Musical Theater” have rolled with the off-campus circumstances. They’ve also had a blast while taking on the most unusual—and to borrow a line from the “Addams Family,” kooky—production of their college careers.

Now, “The Addams Family Musical” is set to premiere Saturday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m., with three more screenings, Sunday, May 2, at 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and Monday, May 3, at 6:30 p.m. Free tickets are available now on BookTix.

Fine, Suri, and the creative team are still amazed at what they accomplished. “Being a part of a group that is so willing to embrace challenge and push through, regardless of getting a call every week from me or the director about the latest problem — that has been really inspiring,” Fine said.

Now, “The Addams Family Musical” is set to premiere Saturday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m., with three more screenings, Sunday, May 2, at 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and Monday, May 3, at 6:30 p.m. Free tickets are available now on BookTix.

Fine, Suri, and the creative team are still amazed at what they accomplished. “Being a part of a group that is so willing to embrace challenge and push through, regardless of getting a call every week from me or the director about the latest problem — that has been really inspiring,” Fine said.

Last spring, the creative team had to essentially start from scratch, figuring out how to design and shoot the musical. “There was a huge mountain of learning to even approach it,” Fine said. “Three months into the pandemic, this was all new to everyone. And we were mostly problem solving on our own.”

The team designed a unique filming process. The actors set up 9-by-13-foot green screens, lighting and cameras in their homes, and the director and choreographers could simultaneously see what the camera was recording via Zoom. With editing software, and many re-shoots, they brought actors together in their scenes with large-scale hand-drawn backgrounds (commissioned from Fletcher Nickerson at Harvey Mudd College) and animation. “No one was doing this in the way we were,” Fine said. “Most people in theater were either doing live performances through Zoom in boxes or were pre-recording and using boxes.”

Still from "The Addams Family Musical," a 5Cs theater collaboration
From left, Alex Kirby as Alice Beineke and Vanessa Dalpiaz as Morticia Addams.

“When I heard the first audio clip and saw the first scene, I was over the moon,” Fine said. “It was exciting to see things come together after eight months of prep work.”

They filmed most of the 2 1/2-hour movie in about six weeks. It was a constant learning process as the team filmed, viewed rough cuts, and saw where they needed to make adjustments. Are the sound and video in sync? Are the eyelines right? How do we choreograph Morticia and Gomez Addams doing the tango when they’re in two separate places? How do we get all 13 actors to sit around one long table?

Fine is a government major whose hobby is theater. When he realized the work he was putting in was more than any other project in his college career, he contacted the registrar about getting course credit for all the students. Pomona professor Giovanni Ortega signed on to oversee the independent study. When the team needed help, Fine contacted CMC’s IT Department, Devon MacIver from the Dean of Students office, and even CMC President Hiram E. Chodosh.

“It takes a special school like CMC to be able to support students in this way,” Fine said. “I don’t think at other schools I would be able to call all these people directly and email back and forth with the president.”

MacIver helped Fine manage the production timeline and the funding, and even provided feedback on rough cuts. “Devon was super instrumental in our success,” Fine said. “He was a mentor we needed on this project.”

“There is a growing appreciation in the fine arts at CMC, and ‘Under the Lights’ has been a huge force in cultivating that appreciation,” said MacIver, associate dean of students for student engagement. “Every fall there is buzz about the UTL one-act plays, and students look forward to the large-scale production in the Athenaeum each spring. When Max first reached out about recreating the Ath production in a remote setting, I was glad to be part of his vision.”

Fine had directed the spring UTL Athenaeum production three years in a row (last spring’s show was cancelled when the campus closed). When Fine pitched the idea for the large-scale collaboration on “The Addams Family Musical” to President Chodosh more than a year ago, he received immediate support. That enthusiasm continued through the COVID-19 disruption.

“I was moved by the challenge of our students overcoming an insuperable COVID-19 challenge in a creative way, and through an ambitious creative project,” said Chodosh. “Without ever being in the same place, producing a high quality, funny, 2.5 hour production in six weeks, is unprecedented.”

Fine said the ability to work with the other theater groups was also invaluable. “We would absolutely not be able to do this without their collaboration and support…. This production made the year feel a lot better than it would otherwise. I felt significantly more connected to Claremont and to my friends,” he said.

Added Suri: “I do theater to create art and to bring community together. Given that we are in a pandemic and still able to do this reminds me that we are all of the same community, even if we are geographically separated right now. Max and I have similar goals, though we go to different schools, and we were able to showcase how wonderful and talented and astounding The Claremont Colleges are when we work as a team.”

The students have also reflected on the broader lessons they’ve learned. “Just imagine the confidence they will each bring to any future challenge they face and the creativity they will summon to surmount it,” Chodosh concluded.

—Julie Riggott