Feb. 22, 2023
USCHS revives “On the Twentieth Century” for the 21st century
Google the most popular high school musicals and you will find numerous lists that include “Beauty and the Beast,” “Mamma Mia!,” “The Addams Family,” “Cinderella,” “Into the Woods,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and many other tried and true favorites. Typically, most high schools do the expected and select a show from among this list. In a daring move, Upper St. Clair High School has done the unexpected and selected a relatively unknown show for its spring musical.
In March, Upper St. Clair High School students will perform, “On the Twentieth Century.” A winner of five Tony Awards and a Best Musical nominee, the show was originally produced in 1978 and was last seen on Broadway in 2015.
Each year Thomas Hunsberger, middle school musical teacher and the musical director, strives to select a show that will provide a balanced theater experience for the upperclassmen.
“This particular group has had the opportunity to perform in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ ‘Shrek,’ ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ and ‘Seussical.’ We wanted to round out their experience with melodrama, comedy and charm,” Mr. Hunsberger said. “’On the Twentieth Century’ is a very entertaining show that combines all of these elements in the best way.”
For the cast, the selection of a less-known show can evoke trepidation, intrigue and an excitement to try something new.
“It was a little nerve-wracking preparing to audition for a show we knew little about, but it was exciting to work on something new for the cast in addition to the audience,” senior Colin Eccher, who portrays Conductor Flanagan, said. “The style of the show, from the score to the scenes, is super unique. Learning to act and speak in the 1930s time period has been a new but rewarding experience.”
The opportunity to perform a different style of show was a welcome change for some.
“I got very excited about doing an older show,” senior Grace Kelly, who is cast as Mildred Plotka/Lily Garland, said. “We did two kid-oriented shows in high school, so I was glad to do something more mature and different.”
Knowing that the show would be completely unknown to the cast and crew, Mr. Hunsberger used the first informational meeting in the fall to fully introduce the story and the history of the show.
“Like the train it is named after, ‘On the Twentieth Century’ is a fast-paced show that keeps moving once the orchestra starts the overture. I wanted to put that excitement into our cast from the beginning,” he said. “There are so many moving elements to the show that every member of the cast will be moving from start to finish, whether it be a quick costume change, or maneuvering around set pieces as they provide vocal support to the cast members on stage.”
According to Mr. Hunsberger, “On the Twentieth Century” is considered to be one of the last classic musicals of the 20th Century.
“Featuring a 21-piece orchestra, the original production had a rich score to support the melodramatic elements of the script and give life to the 20th Century Limited; the train on which the majority of the show takes place,” he said. “When the production closed on Broadway, they reduced the score to an 11-piece orchestra and altered the script for the tour. We have received permission from the rights holders to use the original 21-piece orchestration from the original Broadway production for our performances in March.”
The music, dance numbers and art-deco set have definitely grown on the cast members.
“I've grown to love ‘On the Twentieth Century!’ My favorite moments have been rehearsing tap dance numbers with our talented choreographer, Pamela Barsotti,” Colin said. “The show features a little bit of everything, and I enjoy getting to be a part of it all.”
In addition to liking the costumes, Grace noted that this may be the only opportunity for some community members to ever experience this show.
“The parts and numbers are very fun and remind me of a bunch of different musicals combined. It is not a popular show to do because it is very difficult,” she said. “The sets and music are going to really impress our community but also allow them to laugh.”
In addition to a whole new show, the set design differs from anything Upper St. Clair students have experienced to date.
“One of the most memorable components is the fantastic set showcased throughout the show,” Colin said. “Audience members will be taken inside the Twentieth Century and beyond in a set mirroring the original Broadway production.”
The crew has been able to use space within Upper St. Clair’s Fort Couch Middle School to layout and paint the 20’ high x 40’ wide backdrops.
“Designed to replicate the elegance of the 1930’s model of the 20th Century Limited, the original set was made of various types of metal polished to a shine as a way to honor the railroad and show how glamourous the premiere mode of transportation was at the time. Our set design works to recreate the original production designed by Robin Wagner at the St. James Theatre,” Mr. Hunsberger said. “In addition to recreating the train itself, we are hand drawing and painting three large scale backdrops for the show curtain, opening scene, and flashback sequence.”
More than 110 students are involved in the show’s production. In addition to the cast, dozens of students participate behind the scenes in various roles including pit orchestra, hair, make-up and costumes. In addition, several are gaining valuable experience in set design and construction as part of the stage crew.
“Students participating in stage crew are partnered with adults to learn about the different aspects of stage crew, and are eventually provided with jobs that we encourage them to take ownership of,” Mr. Hunsberger said. “The work ranges from the initial steps of preparing to build a set piece to cutting the pieces out in the scene shop, applying the artwork and painting. This year we have also been able to provide workshop hours for college students working to earn their degree in technical theater.”
Students and staff have been working on the show since early fall and are hoping the community enjoys the show.
“Every minute of us on stage has days of work from set design, costumes, music, dancing and staging,” Grace said.
“On the Twentieth Century” will be performed the first two weekends in March in the Upper St. Clair High School theater. The curtain rises at 7:30 p.m. March 3-4 and March 9-11. A 2 p.m. matinee is offered on Sunday, March 5.
Ticket prices are currently $12 for adults and $6 for students. Adult ticket prices will increase to $15 starting on Feb. 25. Online ticket sales can be accessed at www.usctheater.org.