SUNY Cortland students, the campus community and the public will get a rare opportunity to help shape a new musical loosely based on a macabre, centuries-old Scottish ballad involving a murder between sisters, a harp fashioned from the victim's bones and a ghostly reckoning.
That future musical, “The Bone Harp,” is currently being fine-tuned for its formal professional premiere.
CreateTheater’s Professional College Musical Theatre Partnership has teamed up with SUNY Cortland’s Performing Arts Department to present two staged readings of the heavily revised script for the musical — called a libretto — that originated several years ago in Chicago.
“The idea is when you do a developmental reading, the focus of the project is on giving the writers an opportunity to see how the material plays out, the text and the music and the lyrics,” said Kevin Halpin, professor of performing arts and director of the upcoming prototype production at Cortland.
The two performances of “The Bone Harp,” will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 9, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11, in the Dowd Fine Arts Theatre. Both performances of “The Bone Harp” are free and open to the public. To reserve tickets for the musical read-through in the Dowd Fine Arts Center, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
After each performance, the audience will be invited to do a ‘Talk Back’ session with the cast and writers.
“I would really love it to be that broad range of campus and community members,” Halpin said. “The broader an audience it is, the more helpful it will be to the writers to hear what the responses are.”
Halpin captured a video clip of one performer, junior BFA musical theatre major Aria Odendaal of Tewskbury, N.J., singing the musical’s song “If You Want to Live,” as well as an interview with the creative team, that appeared Dec. 6 on the Bridge Street morning TV show, as may be viewed here.
CreateTheater has been helping writers develop and produce their work since the company was launched in 2016 by Cate Cammarata, an Off-Broadway producer, director and dramaturg. During the pandemic shutdown of 2020-2022, CreateTheater developed or produced more than 70 shows with online readings, workshops and dramaturgical guidance. For her work, Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) honored Cammarata with the TRU Entrepreneur of the Year award earlier this year.
The audience should expect that the cast will perform their staged reading seated or beside a score or script stand with minimal costume and set.
“Essentially, it’s singing and reading the script so the writers can see if it’s doing what the authors would want,” Halpin said of the musical, scripted by Chicago-based writer and lyricist Laura Stratford with music by Heidi Joosten. “Sometimes the production values can mask something in the show that’s not really working right. If we do our job right, it will still be an engaging, effective performance of this piece.”
The script has evolved far from the 15th century Scottish ballad that tells of a traveling troubadour who finds a beautiful, drowned woman and creates a harp from her bones. The supernatural harp then performs a telltale song about a woman who was murdered by a jealous older sister.
Two staged readings occurred in Chicago.
“Over the pandemic, the writers went back to the script and started to develop ideas and questions of social justice that came up: the nature of how we respond to difficulties or acts of violence, and what the response is moving forward and how it affects a whole community,” Halpin said.
The producer, Cammarata, reached out to Cortland’s Performing Arts Department. Cammarata had previously visited the campus to help SUNY Cortland develop and critique its new Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre major, which graduates its first full four-year BFA class this spring.
When CreateTheater made a call for new musicals, Cammarata received roughly 100 submissions and worked with SUNY Cortland’s Performing Arts Department to narrow the choices down to 10, from which department faculty chose “The Bone Harp.”
“We have in the past done new works, new readings,” Halpin said. “But we have not been involved with this producer. CreateTheater Professional College Musical Theatre Partnership is a brand-new entity and this is our first production in that partnership. We hope to continue it annually.”
The collaboration resulted in many changes to the production including the addition of two new songs before the cast began rehearsing the week of Nov. 14.
“Through all of this, the students have been part of this process,” Halpin said. “One of the great things about doing this work is it’s an opportunity for these young actors to be actually part of the development process of a new work and have an impact on how the piece moves forward.”
This also is the department’s first time working with the production’s musical director, Jeff Cox.
“He’s very smart about musical theater, about how the music is part of the storytelling,” Halpin said. “He’s been great with the cast, with the students, helping them learn it.”
“I’ve never worked on developing a musical that hasn’t been done before for an audience,” said Odendaal, who played a lead role of “Sandra” in last year’s SUNY Cortland production of “Big Fish” and will portray the lead role of “Jenny Allen” in “The Bone Harp.”
“That’s been a really cool experience, getting to work with the people who wrote the musical,” Odendaal said. “Every day at rehearsal we’re getting new pages of the script and different music. That is exciting, being part of the process of developing the character.”
“I’m really interested in the writing, because this is a musical that’s very much still in development,” said senior BFA musical theatre major Lauren Cochran of Staten Island, N.Y., who will take the second leading role of “Jessa Allen.”
“There will be one public production on Friday, and the writers will be here to rewrite it afterward,” Cochran said. “Then we will have to pick up on it for the production the very next day, Saturday. The writers will give us any rewrite, we will rehearse it that day and perform it again on Sunday with any changes.”
The remaining cast includes: Dominic Green as “John Allen” and Adriana Kabat as “Jane Allen”; cast as ghosts are Justin Waite, Kaylee West, Kara Vito and Devin Bethards; cast as villagers/ensemble are Olivia Goodman, Harry Sperduto, Nellie Cotrupe, Annie Ross and Louis Bianco. Waite, Vito, Goodman, Sperduto, Cotrupe, Ross and Bianco all have additional, understudy roles.