The Man Behind Shasta High’s ‘Music Man’

Shasta High School students are preparing to open their ambitious spring musical, “The Music Man,” which begins its 2-week run on Wednesday, and Director Gavin Spencer has taken time out to answer a few questions about the show.

First, about the musical: Playwright Meredith Willson’s most famous work premiered on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film (in 1962 and 2003). It took Willson some eight years and thirty revisions to complete the musical, for which he wrote more than 40 songs. The cast recording of “The Music Man” won the first Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album ever issued.

A bit more Music Man trivia: in 1920 Meredith Willson married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Wilson, thus adding one “l” to her last name. As a flute and piccolo player, Willson was a member of John Philip Sousa’s band from 1921 to 1923. He was the band leader and a regular on the Burns and Allen radio program. One of the best known songs from the musical, “Till There Was You,” was a big hit for The Beatles, Paul McCartney singing it on “With The Beatles” (UK), “Meet The Beatles” (US). And speaking of Sir Paul, he controls the rights to Willson’s song catalog. Meredith Willson wrote three autobiographies, all decades before her husband’s death in 1984.

Now, my interview with the director of Shasta High’s performance, Gavin Spencer:

In the wide world of theatre with so many plays to choose from, what was it about “Music Man” that made it your choice for the spring musical?

Harold Hill (played by David Fowler) sidles up to Marian Paroo (Rachel Sumption). Photograph by Bob Small.

In the past few years we have done some rather contemporary shows like “Aida” and “Les Miserables,” which were well received by the community. I felt it was time to return to a play that would take the students back to a enduring classic. Of course, I have to examine who I have in my program and determine what show will suit them the best. This one just seemed to fit this year. I’ve got a great Harold Hill and my Marian has a stunning voice. The character actors will cause you to chuckle and smile all night. And since I am also the choir director, I must mention that the chorus is fantastic. I’m very excited and anxious to get this show started. They have been able to experience life in Midwestern America and learn through the characters what people may have been like then. We learn about salesmen traveling from city to city by train and how they may have been received by town folk. I could go on and on, but it also teaches some great history.

There are so many great songs in “The Music Man,” many of them embedded forever in American culture. As a kid, I loved the movie version and was amazed by the fast and intricate “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” with its exchanges between the ladies and the barbershop quartet. How difficult was it to recreate this complex song?

Surprisingly, the “Pick-a-Little” song is not as difficult as it may seem, although I have awesome Pick-a-Little Ladies that make it sound easy. The barbershop quartet, in my opinion, is the most difficult piece of the show musically. They have a lot of music to learn and barbershop harmonies are not easy to harmonize. It takes a lot of work. This quartet just keeps getting better and better as we approach our opening.

Mounting a musical of this magnitude can be almost as hard as coordinating a moon landing. What did you find to be your greatest challenge in making it happen?

With 55 high school actors and 15 elementary school actors, rehearsals have been more challenging. And not because the students aren’t fantastic. It’s just a lot of bodies with a lot of energy. And there are a lot of large chorus scenes that involve most of them. Then there’s the timing of our spring break. Spring break just happened to fall the week before we open our show. Normally, we have a week of rehearsals building up to our three dress rehearsals. Well,this time we had our week of rehearsal building up to a week off. We now have the start of our three dress rehearsals on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday. I just hope they remembered everything from a week ago.

The audience will be focused on all the onstage talent. But who has been responsible for creating the rest of the magic — set, lights, sound? Do the students do all this as well?

Winthrop and Amaryllis, played by Max Fowler and Annie Cahill. Photo by Bob Small.

There are many responsible for the success of the show. Before I mention individuals, there are hundreds of volunteers that work in a variety of areas. It takes thousands of man-hours to execute a show like this.

Here are a few of our leaders: First, our costumer is Rita Simpson, whom I have had the pleasure of working for the past nine years. And this show is perfect for her. She is master of “period costuming” and she loves the early 20th century. Set construction is led by Bob Shaw, who coordinates everything you see on the stage that involves wood, screws and more. Kevin Ransom is responsible for the construction of our incredible “Paroo House,” train and more. Our audiences will be blown away by these set pieces. The artists of the set are Diedra Malain and Diane Elrick, who are an amazing team. Everything involving paint, they are head of the crew.

Lou Polcari is the Orchestra Director and is responsible for making 21 high school instrumental musicians sound like professionals. Jeff Knott is our sound engineer and has a key role in the show and must be on the ball, since we are running 29 wireless microphones, not to mention the ones that are being used in the orchestra. Dale Reed and I are responsible for light design. I tell him what I want and he finds a way to make it happen. There will be some very special moments with the lighting. The opening scene of the show is one of them. I’d be willing to bet that no matter how many times you’ve seen “The Music Man,” you’ve never seen it open like this. I won’t say any more.

Do you have a special Gavin Spencer signature moment in the show that you’d like to point out?

If I have a signature, I would say it’s one of the following things. I’m a believer in fast scene transitions, some of which happen before your eyes … hopefully executed to help the show flow and not distract. Another will be detail to lighting. I work hard with Dale to make sure we have the best and most accurate picture created for each scene. Just ask Dale. Many hours have been spent in the theater with me saying “I don’t like it. Let’s try…” And hopefully my last signature would be strong choruses and solo singing.

I know you have a few rehearsals left at the time of this interview and that it’s getting intense. Is it going to be a well-oiled Music Machine on opening night, or do you have any last minute concerns?

The short answer is “IT BETTER BE!” However, there are a lot of concerns, some of which will work themselves out (sometimes magically) at the last moment. That is when the students learn how to be professionals. They know what the standard is and know that it won’t be compromised. I have full confidence that this show will be a hit in the community.

Click here for “The Music Man” performance dates and more.

An actor, director, and artist, Dean Williams has appeared on Shasta County stages for over 25 years in nearly 100 different roles. He has collaborated with many theatre groups and is co-founder of The Root Theatre Company. He has also voiced characters for Sega and Playstation video games, and acted for a number of radio, televison and independent film projects. Ever since the first stories were acted out around ancient fires, theatre has held the power to move audiences like no other art form. It remains Williams’ focus because live theatre has the potential to tell us every human story, intimately and impactfully. It becomes a magic mirror in which we see our own stories.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

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An actor, director, and artist, Dean Williams has appeared on Shasta County stages for over 25 years in nearly 100 different roles. He has collaborated with many theatre groups and is co-founder of The Root Theatre Company. He has also voiced characters for Sega and Playstation video games, and acted for a number of radio, televison and independent film projects. Ever since the first stories were acted out around ancient fires, theatre has held the power to move audiences like no other art form. It remains Williams's focus because live theatre has the potential to tell us every human story, intimately and impactfully. It becomes a magic mirror in which we see our own stories.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    Mr. Spencer is so dedicated to his students. Even the ones who aren't good enough for the plays learn so much in his chorus classes. The singing dinners each Christmas are magical.

    What this article didn't mention is all the younger kids who have a part in this play. Mixing them in with the high schoolers quadrupled the problems.

  2. Avatar PHH says:

    39 years since the 1972 Ken Putnam Production starring Jay Keye, son of Dr. Keye of Wallner's "The Barefoot Plumbers" fame.

  3. Avatar PHH says:

    "Jeff Knott is our sound engineer and has a key role in the show and must be on the ball, since we are running 29 wireless microphones, not to mention the ones that are being used in the orchestra. "

    !972 one wireless mic (rare and expensive at the time) shared by the soloists and two mics in the pit.

    2 Altec A7s (borrowed) powered by a 100 watt Bogen Amp/Mixer

    Monitors? Ha! Bet these kids got ear buds.

    Eureka Way was a dirt road.