Robert Westenberg is enjoying a homecoming of sorts, directing a new production of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's 1991 musical The Secret Garden at Missouri State University. Westenberg created the role of Dr. Neville Craven in the original Broadway production, singing the emotional duet "Lily's Eyes" opposite Mandy Patinkin eight shows a week at the St. James Theatre.
Following a Broadway acting career that also included originating roles in Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, Westenberg turned to directing and teaching; he is currently a professor and coordinator of musical theatre at MSU.
Chatting via phone about his return to The Secret Garden, Westenberg seemed struck with how timely the musical remains. "[The show] is unbelievably prophetic in terms of what is happening today."
The musical, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 novel of the same name, opens with a 10-year-old girl living in British-occupied India who wakes up one morning to find everyone she knows gone, dead from an outbreak of cholera. Westenberg's production, originally scheduled to perform last spring, has of course been touched by an outbreak of its own—one still affecting theatres and theatre artists worldwide.
"We had rehearsed it in the studio to the point where we were ready to move into the theatre for tech, and that ended up being the week when theatres were shut down, and the realities of the pandemic became apparent."
Westenberg decided to postpone the production to the fall as a filmed and streamed performance so that the students' hard work wouldn't go unseen, but with the spread of COVID-19 very much still a reality, lots of adjustments had to be made.
"We enacted strict protocols in the rehearsal process. We talked a lot with the kids about bubbling, making sure that their pod of friends wasn't too extensive. They were restricted from parties or any kind of socializing where social distancing and face masks weren't happening. Temperatures were taken at the top of every rehearsal for everyone involved. Masks were strictly enforced, and social distancing was strictly enforced."
Masks also made it to the filmed performance, because Westenberg felt the story couldn't authentically be told with actors socially distanced on stage. The actors all wear matching clear masks throughout the performance, which created their own unique challenges.
"We use the same style of mask for everybody, but everyone's facial contours are very different, and the microphone can be receiving different signals according to the particular plane of that actor's face. Sometimes it sounds muffled, sometimes it sounds clear, sometimes it sounds staticky, but for the most part it's far better than I thought it was going to be. I have killer kids with Broadway-level voices, and the singing really comes through."
Westenberg and his team filmed a performance in an empty theatre with four cameras—two in the back of the house for wide master shots and two for close-ups—with the help of a new platform from ShowTix4U and Broadway Media Group that streamlines ticket sales, streaming portals, and licensing payments all in one place. The platform allows for true live streams along with pre-recorded "command" performances, which MSU has elected to do for The Secret Garden. The cast and crew filmed last week ahead of their September 15 virtual opening.
Filmed performances might seem anathema to live theatre afficionados, but Westenberg was pleasantly surprised with how it turned out.
"I thought it was going to be archival-like in terms of the camera quality and editing, but it turned out to be far better than I had ever hoped, because the cameras have the ability to zoom and pan."
The live quality of the performance is also preserved by editing on the fly as if a live TV telecast, since The Secret Garden licensor Concord Theatricals bars post-production editing in these situations to maintain the integrity of the live theatre experience.
Despite the myriad challenges the production ultimately faced, Westenberg ultimately found the experience an emotional one that uncovered just how much he loves the musical he helped develop almost three decades ago.
"This play had a profound impact on all of us as artists and human beings and as a community. I feel like we went through a war together, and we came our the other side. It was emotional and very moving, because in this day and age when there's so much dysfunction and so much divisiveness and corruption and cynicism, to have a play that talks about unity and forgiveness and redemption and hope is so powerful."
Missouri State University's The Secret Garden virtually opened September 15, with additional streamed performances scheduled nightly September 16-18. Tickets are available at ShowTix4U.com.