In mid-March, as theatre programs and schools across the world braced for cancelled spring productions, Beat by Beat Press sprang into action. The online publisher of contemporary children’s musicals, it quickly churned out The Show Must Go Online! in a record 19 days. The virtual musical follows a group of students grappling with the closure of their spring show, a zany dental hygiene revue Brushes With Greatness: The Musical, and their decision to save it by performing it online.
More than 500 elementary and middle school theatre programs across the world have since licensed the show and are rehearsing and performing the new tuner in quarantine. The musical, which runs approximately 35 minutes, features songs and scenes about the challenges of rehearsing and performing at home. Characters contend with needy pets, loud siblings, and cramped living quarters while polishing their solos and crafting homemade toothbrush costumes.
“Our goal was to create something as technologically simple as possible, as fun as possible, and to get it out as fast as possible so that we could make it super easy for educators to start working on something with their kids,” says Denver Casado, founder of Beat by Beat Press and the show’s composer.
Casado, along with book writer Jessica Penzias and lyricist David Hudson, wrote the musical using Skype, Dropbox, and Google Docs. Volunteer artists lent their voices for demo tracks. The hardest part was settling on the content of the silly musical-within-the-musical, which features a character named Bob Flossy and a show-stopping number called “Defying Cavities.” The script is a series of scenes that form a cohesive story when edited together, which can then simply be uploaded individually and organized as a playlist on YouTube.
Educators can read the script and listen to the score online for free, and one license can be used for multiple productions. Beat by Beat Press is also offering a pay-what-you-can option for programs in need.
The Show Must Go Online! opens with a tech-illiterate teacher character fumbling with the camera while announcing to students over a video call that their musical is cancelled. To avoid real-life glitches like those parodied here, Beat by Beat Press put together a tech guide as well as instructions for how to conduct remote rehearsals. In addition, Beat by Beat Press has connected educators to share best practices and learnings through a Facebook group and live chats. “We are flexible—our whole company has always been built around making things easy for the drama teacher,” explains Casado.
Jaclyn Loewenstein, artistic director and founder of Class Act in Champaign, Ill., wasn’t planning on mounting another spring show—her students performed Polkadots the Musical onstage in early March—but when she learned about The Show Must Go Online!, she knew her 19 students would be thrilled to participate. “I got a huge lump in my throat,” she says.
The show was cast on April 14 and premiered on YouTube on May 4. For her part, Loewenstein learned how to use Final Cut Pro with the guidance of a tech-savvy parent. “I spent three days just editing the finale, but that is also my personality,” she says with a laugh.
Nate Edwards, the drama teacher at Richfield Middle School in Richfield, Minn., is also the school’s computer science and digital production instructor. He challenged his students to be the first school to premiere the show in the country—and they succeeded within just 10 days. In addition to the friendly competitive nudge, Edwards knew that their production could be an example for other educators navigating the musical’s technical aspects. He created a tech guide to help lead other educators through the process of editing the show.
Kim Edwards, the artistic director of the YEM Theatre School in Farnborough, England, was surprised that 80 of her after-school students were interested in participating in The Show Must Go Online! She is currently spearheading rehearsals for four casts with the help of teaching assistants, and weekend rehearsals with each role are separated into Zoom breakout rooms. “I’ve got timetables everywhere around my house for when I need to be on Zoom,” she says with a laugh. The school plans to premiere the first production next month.
It has been a challenge to add rehearsals into the new reality of remote schooling and work-from-home schedules, so many programs delayed the start of work on the show. Another hurdle has been shared laptops among families; indeed, unequal tech access has become an overarching issue in our new unplanned home-school world.
One of the biggest challenges across the board has been conducting music rehearsals remotely. Kim Edwards mutes all the students while she plays and sings the music, then unmutes the students one at a time to go through their parts individually. Loewenstein sent her students sheet music and worked with them one-on-one, but aligning the tracks to sing the final number in unison proved challenging. She was able to polish the song by adjusting sound levels, trimming the cutoffs, and adding captions to make the lyrics more clear.
“I played them together and I started crying,” she recalls. “Their sweet little voices singing together—even though they were separated in their own homes. It sounded so beautiful, innocent, and hopeful.”
While it has been a struggle to juggle rehearsal schedules and harmonize via Zoom, there have been some bright spots in the virtual arrangement. Melissa Claire, the director of Kids Musical Theater in Point Reyes Station, Calif., says that her students are learning the invaluable skill of self-taping and are also enjoying the undivided attention of one-on-one rehearsals. “It is a deeper way of teaching,” she says.
The Show Must Go Online! has been revealing hidden talents and bringing shy kids out of their shells. “One thing I really liked about this show is that it really gave each kid a chance to shine on their own,” says Nate Edwards.
“Beat by Beat has taken into consideration that children of all ages can perform this, so we’ve got children from 6 to 18 years old in this production—it’s great,” says Kim Edwards, noting that one her most enthusiastic cast members is just 5 years old. “There’s something in there for every single one of them.”
One of the highly sought-after roles incorporates pets: A student in the Class Act performance showcased two excited dogs, a scene-stealing snake performed as part of the YEM Theatre School’s show, and the cast of Kids Musical Theater will star guinea pigs. There’s also a section for a student to play the piano, and another scene with disruptive siblings. (A student with five brothers and sisters in England gladly took on that role.) “We always allow a certain amount of flexibility with our scripts to accommodate different cast sizes, genders, and specific community references,” says Casado.
In a climactic battle scene, students use stuffed animals or action figures to mimic mouthwash and floss defeating plaque and gingivitis—roles played by a plush E.T., stuffed unicorns, and even Bratz Dolls in some productions. The students are excited to show off their bedrooms, play spaces, and favorite toys.
All the teachers credit the parents for their help as behind-the-scenes camera operators, lighting designers, and tech support. Early in the rehearsal process, Loewenstein did some virtual location scouting of the students’ homes to see where their scenes might take place and to identify light sources for self-taping. At Kids Musical Theater, director Melissa Claire is working with a parent who is an event planner and a cake decorator to create an at-home costume shop for the costumer character, complete with a dress form.
The positive response to the online shows from the students’ families and their communities has been overwhelming. In Champaign, Ill., the Class Act production premiered on YouTube with a live chat, and the video now has more than 6,000 views. For Richfield Middle School, the online production of The Show Must Go Online! quickly garnered a bigger audience than the 200-seat auditorium could allow.
For the community of Point Reyes Station, a one-street town in Northern California, the premiere of the show will occur next month during the town’s annual Western Week hoedown celebration, which has been cancelled. Claire knows that the show will be a balm for Point Reyes Station residents who will gather online for the big premiere, and for families living beyond the town’s borders. “We can’t see grandparents or family in other states,” says Claire. “This is a gift from Beat by Beat Press.”
Her advice to any teachers exploring virtual productions is this: “Give yourself permission to fail. Realize that it is a whole new technology. Realize that it is a different way of communicating too. You kind of have to roll with the punches.” She adds that the experience has been “incredibly healing and inspiring.”
And while Kim Edwards wrangles four separate casts, she knows that this opportunity is providing much-needed relief to her students. “It’s so important for kids to have something like this that’s just for fun.”
The team at Beat by Beat Press has its next steps in mind, with plans to create more virtual musicals for students to perform across the globe. “It’s really exciting to think that we’re just beginning to see what’s possible,” says Casado. “Clearly the technology is there. It’s interesting how this pandemic has forced us all to be creative in this kind of new way. I think we’re gonna see a lot of really cool stuff come out of it.”