Last month HBO released the documentary Song of Parkland, which follows the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students’ rehearsal and production of Yo Vikings! after the tragic shooting at their school on Feb. 14, 2018. The fun-filled children’s musical, complete with viking helmets and costume beards, offered a balm to a hurting community during a difficult time. This coming weekend, MSD students will mount A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, a family-friendly show that has special ties to another community with great resilience and a “show must go on” attitude in the face of a similar tragedy: Newtown, Conn.
A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream was created by Michael Unger (producing artistic director of NewArts) and composer Eric Svejcar, and developed by NewArts, an organization created by a local father, Dr. Michael Baroody, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown to help kids develop character and boost confidence through theatre. This musicalized version of Midsummer, which sets the Bard’s text to a rock ’n’ roll score, had its world premiere in Newtown in 2014.
Midsummer, with its magic and folly and fairies, is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. But the young cast members and audiences of A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream also connected with the play’s central message of healing through love. The process of the young cast opening up, stepping out, and expressing themselves has been beautifully captured in another documentary film, Midsummer in Newtown.
“Midsummer, and the way we produced it and designed it, was about a place in disarray,” notes Unger. The set started out reflecting that chaos, he explains, but over the course of the play’s action, it “gradually got restored, and by the end there was a complete, Parthenon-looking structure. The scaffolding was all gone and it was a perfectly restored edifice, because love restores the conflicts, as they’re called, in Midsummer.”
The show’s second staging in Parkland, Fla., has been in the works for a while. The connection was made last year, when Unger traveled to Parkland with producer Van Dean to mount a “From Broadway With Love” fund-raising concert, along the lines of one they’d done in Newtown in 2013. While there, he saw the MSD students perform Yo Vikings! and talked to the drama teacher Melody Herzfeld (who won the 2018 Excellence in Theatre Education Tony Award) about bringing his Midsummer to MSD. “It just made perfect sense,” he says. “I watched those kids onstage and saw them fitting into this piece incredibly well.”
While A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a children’s show per se, it fills the kids’ theatre slot at MSD. Herzfeld began doing children’s fare when she arrived to MSD 15 years ago as a way for the high school students to get involved in the community, and to offer an opportunity for elementary students to come watch the high schoolers perform.
“It’s the show that they do for nothing but really for everything, because there is no award or adjudication attached to it,” explains Herzfeld, noting that the students also put on a play and a musical each year. “We’re a very competitive drama group, so a lot of what we do has a competition or some kind of award attached to it. This is our giving-back show—it’s how we give back to the community.”
The students, who unanimously voted to move forward with Yo Vikings! after last year’s tragedy, are mounting Midsummer in the wake of its one-year anniversary commemorations. “It is very raw,” concedes Herzfeld. “I try to be a constant and be exactly who I am every single day with the kids, because I think they need to rely on me to not change. I am extremely sensitive to what they’re going through. They’re struggling right now; this is not an easy thing.”
A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a playful distraction. “There is nothing except humor and love in it, it is a very happy-go-lucky version,” says Herzfeld.
Unger and Svejcar, along with Sandy Hook Elementary’s music teacher Maryrose Kristopik, came to MSD last fall to help cast the show and work with the students. And while Herzfeld and Unger are co-directing, Herzfeld notes that the students are involved in every aspect of the production, from stage managing to designing projections. “I’m just holding the baton,” she says with a laugh.
It is this sense of leadership and collaboration that Unger believes the performing arts can give to students. “The intangibles that you can build and teach in theatre have the potential to solve such a spectrum of problems that young people have,” he says. He points to the young cast members in NewArts’ Midsummer who were unable to make eye contact at the first rehearsal, then went on to hold court onstage.
Some of these theatre skills, such as the ability to confidently speak in public, have buoyed the MSD students behind the #NeverAgain movement. One of its founding members, Alex Wind, will take the stage as Oberon. And a few of the original cast members of the NewArts production of Midsummer will make their way to Florida this weekend to support the MSD cast.
The meeting of the two communities will also bring together the leaders of NewArts with an organization with a similar ethos of healing through art: ShineMSD, started by MSD senior Sawyer Garrity (who will portray Titiana), Andrea Peña (the show’s Hippolyta and student musical director), their parents, and other families involved in the MSD drama program.
“The students know the context of the play and what it means to the community of Newtown—they understand that,” explains Herzfeld. “I think when the band arrives and they get their costumes, it will start to become very real to them.”
It will be very real to the Parkland community too. “The message of the show is really important,” says Herzfeld. “Where everything is upside down and things are completely out of our control—that is what we’ve experienced here. At the end, love can light everything, because that is really what you need. When you do dig deep down inside, and when the anger and the pain goes away, you can make it work.”