On Oct. 5, the Drake Theatre Arts Department will present the world premiere of the musical “WINGS.” Written by Danny K. Bernstein and with arrangement and orchestration from Nick Wilders, “WINGS” is loosely based on the 1906 novel of the same name.
The musical follows St. Petersburg University student Vanya as he works toward winning a prestigious fellowship. However, Vanya’s life grows more complicated as he enters into an unexpected relationship with the current recipient of the fellowship.
Director and Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Erin Degner was connected with this opportunity on a New York City January Term two years ago. Degner’s students were participating in workshops with professionals in the city, and Wilders was playing piano for them.
“[Wilders] reached out to us about a month later when we got back and said, ‘Hey, we really enjoyed working with your students. Do you have any interest in collaborating on this new musical?’” Degner said. “So we said ‘yes, absolutely.’”
Bernstein and Wilders visited Drake last semester for a staged reading, workshopping and design development. Scenic and lighting design students submitted design concepts for “WINGS” to Bernstein and Wilders.
Senior Brynn Kelly was chosen as the lighting designer, and senior Joe Barnard was chosen as the scenic designer. This is a change from the typical designing process, as designers usually base their work off of the director’s design concept. Because of this change, the designs were solidified and approved far sooner than they would have otherwise.
“With the show being so early in the year, I think that’s been very beneficial that we were able to get started right away when the school year started, and we weren’t still deliberating on what to do with certain elements,” Barnard said.
Bernstein and Wilders were also involved in the casting process and were able to help decide who would play their characters on stage for the first time.
“I went in at points with the different levels of insecurity since we met the writers, and we know they’re gonna see [the show],” said senior Chloe Fox, who plays Ida, another student at the university. “To a certain degree, there’s a lot of pressure to do it perfectly, but once I got past that, I just had to realize that whatever I bring to it is going to be perfect for this production. I have to have the faith in myself to know that I was cast for a reason and explore.”
As this is the first time “WINGS” will be performed on stage, changes were still being made to the script during the rehearsal process. Bernstein and Wilders worked with the cast on the music for the first few days of rehearsals and made edits to both the script and the music during this period.
“We were getting changes to the script [for] one specific scene for quite a long period of time. And even in the staged reading, things changed up until the last day,” said junior Griffin Snow, who plays Stroop. “We’re finally in the spot where the script has stopped changing, but that was something that you don’t expect working on a new show. It’s not completely finished until you put it on the stage.”
Working directly with the writer of the show has given the cast and creative team another perspective on the show.
“Working with the writer has been so awesome. I got some great insight on the characters that would not simply get from just picking up a show and doing it. I also got to know them better and got to have great conversations,” junior Harrison Stull, who plays Vanya, said.
Producing a premiere also offers the creative team an increased level of freedom, as there are no past productions to get inspiration from or compare to.
“It’s been fun to develop the look and the aesthetic of the show,” Barnard said. “When you do a work [that’s] been done before, you tend to get stuck in boxes of, ‘What does this show generally look like?’ You can deviate from that, but there’s nothing to base off of for this one.”
Senior Maren Grant, who serves as assistant director and dramaturg, says the cast and crew is under a lot of pressure to produce a faithful premiere. Bernstein and Wilders would like to have their show produced on a larger scale, and that possibility could hinge on the success of the premiere.
“I have nothing else that I can look at to see, ‘Am I doing this right?’” Grant said. “But in the same way, no one else has done it, so you can do whatever you want with it as long as it resonates with everybody in the room that’s working on it.”
According to Grant, audiences can expect a beautiful, hard-hitting story with themes that are still applicable today.
“I remember when I was watching the workshop back in February or March, we got to the first song of act two and I was sitting there, and I [knew] this is set in 1906, but I feel like I can hear these exact words coming out of people’s mouths today,” Grant said.
Fox emphasized that “WINGS” is for mature audiences, as it contains heavy material and dark themes. She says that it’s up to the audience to understand the reasoning behind including this content.
“I think it’s one of the most real shows I’ve ever been a part of, and that can make people uncomfortable. It’s not your showy musical with a happy ending,” Fox said. “But if audience members can sit with that feeling of realism, and learn how to take [it into] their own lives, then that would be the goal achieved with the show.”
The cast encourages the Drake community to come support the premiere.
“I think it’s one of the higher caliber productions that I’ve been a part of here,” Barnard said. “Just in terms of the wow factor, I think it’ll feel very professional.”
“WINGS” runs Oct. 5-8 at the Coleman Studio Theatre. Tickets are $8 for students and can be purchased through the Fine Arts Box Office.
“My goal is to have [Bernstein and Wilders] really enjoy my performance and hopefully next time they do the show, they can remember back to something I did that they liked and think, ‘Oh, we want you to act like this’ to whoever plays this role next,” Fox said. “It’s scary but really exciting at the same time knowing I have the opportunity to inspire someone within their own show.”