SUNY Cortland musical theatre students will perform off Broadway in New York City, as they continue to shape the evolution of “The Bone Harp,” a promising new musical the students tested on a SUNY Cortland Stage last fall.
The student will again do a professional reading — including singing — on Tuesday, May 23, and Wednesday, May 24, at Theatre Row, located off Broadway at 410 West 42nd St., just two blocks from Times Square. Both performances in Theatre 5 will begin at 7 p.m.
The work by lyricist/librettist Laura Stratford and composer Heidi Joosten will take center stage as the opening presentation of the New York New Works Festival, an annual festival at which aspiring Broadway playwrights showcase their developing shows.
“None of the cast have ever performed in New York City so it’s exciting for them,” said Kevin Halpin, SUNY Cortland professor of performing arts. “It’s after Commencement, so I’m expecting a lot of our alums and current students will also be in the audience.”
“The Bone Harp,” which is currently being fine-tuned for its formal professional premiere, will be presented as a staged reading, where cast are seated or standing beside a score or script stand with minimal costume and set.
The performance is free but those wishing to attend must RSVP through CreateTheater, a company that has been helping writers develop and produce their work since its launch in 2016 and that forged a Professional College Musical Theatre Partnership last year with SUNY Cortland.
The event continues CreateTheater’s project of fine-tuning “The Bone Harp” with SUNY Cortland’s Performing Arts Department. Last December, the partnership presented two staged developmental readings of the heavily revised script for the musical — called a libretto — in the Dowd Center’s Fine Arts Theatre. It was reviewed on the Broadway World website.
“It’s my hope that some of the literary agents as well as actor agents will come and get in contact with everyone afterwards, so this becomes a true launching pad for everyone,” said Cate Cammarata, an Off-Broadway producer, director, dramaturg and CreateTheatre’s founder.
During the pandemic shutdown of 2020-22, 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 2022 TRU Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Halpin will direct the off-Broadway production of “The Bone Harp,” which is loosely based on a centuries-old Scottish ballad, while Jeff Cox, a New York-based music director and conductor who has performed internationally and on Broadway, again will carry forward the musical direction.
“Up until we participated in this partnership, we had been workshopping it and doing readings in Chicago,” said the composer, Joosten. “So, we appreciate having the opportunity to present it to anyone who’s willing and able to hear it — producers, creative people, people who are writing in big markets — to give us feedback.”
The critiques by the SUNY Cortland students, the campus community and the public helped the creative team ready the piece for off-Broadway.
“Based on that feedback, we’ve rewritten some key songs and moments of the show,” observed the librettist, Stratford, who wrote and began refining the original piece with Joosten about four years ago in Chicago. “We have a new end of Act I, a new beginning Act 2, and some character and scene changes. It will be so valuable having the same performers showing this new version.”
“The entire musical is built first on a script and songs, but then it takes a director and a cast along with the librettist and the composer-lyricist to then actualize it into a working script for a production,” Cammarata explained. “And all along the way, we tweak it in front of an audience to see what resonates and what doesn’t. That gives the writers — the creative team — an opportunity to see it up on its feet, and then to hear how it works and how it doesn’t.”
For the New York production, the audience will likely include theater industry executives shopping for new and exciting work and talent to bring to their own stages.
“It’s an opportunity for our students to have an off-Broadway credit on their resume,” Halpin said. “And for our program to demonstrate the work we do, our professionalism and how we are connected to the theater industry.”
Cammarata’s collaboration with SUNY Cortland began when she previously served as an outside reviewer when SUNY Cortland developed its new Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre major, which graduates its first full four-year BFA class this spring.
“It really is a top-notch musical training department,” Cammarata said. “I also knew that the students as performers have to understand the process of developing new work, because it is such a mainstay in the New York City professional actor’s talent wheelhouse. And Laura and Heidi were a wonderful team to start this process with, because they know how important this is for young actors.”
With the exception of three cast members who already have other summer theatre commitments, most of the same cast of eager Red Dragons have been rehearsing in recent weeks to return to “The Bone Harp” in the roles they played in December.
The key actors remain the same, with Lauren Cochran playing “Jessa Allen,” Aria Odendaal as “Jenny Allen,” Dominic Green as “John Allen” and Adriana Kabat as “Jane Allen.”
Cast as ghosts are Justin Waite, Kaylee West, Kara Vito and Louis Bianco; and as villagers/ensemble/understudies are Olivia Goodman, Nellie Cotrupe and Annie Ross with the new additions of Ryan Rodriquez and SUNY Cortland graduate Billy O’Brien ’20.
“Being able to see the life the students were breathing into characters is incredibly helpful as writers and of course, hopefully for the audience as well,” Stratford said.
In the musical, Jessa and Jenny Allen have made the most of their isolated life as daughters of the village gravedigger since their mother left the family 10 years before. They’ve discovered the Boneyard, a ghostly realm where the spirits of villagers past keep them company once their bodies have been exhumed and their bones prepared for interment. When their father leaves home for an annual trip, the girls discover a grisly secret: that their mother had not abandoned the family as they thought, but was murdered. As the murderer’s path crosses theirs, they need to use all of the skills they have acquired in a lifetime of isolated endurance to not only find justice for their mother’s death, but to survive themselves.