Over the years, Musical Theatre Repertory (MTR) has provided the student body with a plethora of musicals. We've watched them bring Sondheim, Pasek and Paul, and a variety of other musical playwrights' works to life. For the past three years, these musicals have become realized under the musical direction of senior Sasha Bartol. A music composition major, Bartol has music directed six shows for MTR.
However, not many knew that all the while, Bartol was writing her very own musical.
This fall, MTR—under the direction of Sophie Thomason— will produce a staged reading of Bartol's original musical "Something Ever After," with music and lyrics by Sasha Bartol, and book and lyrics by her writing partner Jeffrey Morse.
"Something Ever After" tells the story of Ben Harris, a young man coming to terms with life after his attempt to commit suicide fails. His awakening in the hospital has a ripple effect on his family, friends, and classmates, who each realize they must come to terms with their own struggles. He finds unexpected support in the school's guidance counselor, Wendy Cruz, his sister Rachel, and his loving-but-closeted boyfriend, Chris. Together, they learn to accept that life will always have low points, but we can always find the light.
Bartol shares some of her insights on the creative process, the art of musical storytelling, and the message she hopes to convey.
What is the first musical theatre song you can remember that moved you?
While I can't say the very first song that moved me, a song that has always moved me is "Back to Before," from "Ragtime." Though that entire musical has always meant a lot to me, that song specifically tells such an incredible story about pushing past adversity and learning to live with what we have, and that's without even mentioning the music. Ahrens and Flaherty created something truly incredible with this song and this story, and listening to it has always reminded me why I write music.
What makes a good song? And how do you know when it is finished?
I think that it's almost impossible to qualify what a "good song" is because, in the end, it's up to personal opinion. I think for me, I know I've written a good song when I can't stop singing it. It might sound cheesy and a little vain, but when my own songs get stuck in my head I know that I've caught onto something. I truly believe that if the audience doesn't leave the theatre singing the music from the show then it's not truly successful. That's always been my barometer for success, and it's how I measure my own songs. As far as when a song is finished, it's not fully done until it is written down for piano and voice and fully orchestrated, because only then have I considered the song from all angles and fully realized it's potential.
What do you get from musicals that you don't get from any other type of storytelling?
I think that the beauty of telling a story through musical theater is the elevation of emotion that comes from singing a song. Audience members and cast members are truly taken to another world, and you really feel the emotion because the music tells you how to feel without you even knowing. A good musical theatre song should take you somewhere that you didn't realize you were going to.
What made you decide to go into the business of writing musicals?
I grew up performing in musicals, and I grew up playing classical piano and eventually writing, and my senior year of high school I realized that these two things could go together. As I went to see shows, I thought about how incredible it would be to create a whole new world for an audience to experience, and I realized that someone had to write the musicals that I loved so much, so why couldn't I do it? I adapted parts of Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" for my senior thesis, and I absolutely loved it. When I came to USC I dove into the musical theatre world, and I haven't looked back.
Walk us through the process of writing a musical. What comes first?
The process of writing a musical is different for every person and every writing team. For Jeffrey and I, this musical comes out of real experiences that we had in high school, so we came up with a basic story line and then we wrote the first song, "Memories of You," that the mother character sings in the story. Though the show has evolved a large amount over the last few years, this song has only changed a little bit since July 2014, which is something truly beautiful. We've written and cut so many songs, and it's incredible that this one has lasted. After the idea came a long process of writing, editing, and cutting. They say you have to write 100 songs to get 1 good one and that's something that really has happened with this show. It's been through so many drafts and revisions, and the one that we're presenting next week is something that I am incredibly proud of.
What were you looking for in your original cast members?
When casting our original cast members, we were looking for people with innate qualities that we saw in the characters because they are bringing people to life who were previously only 2D. It has been so exciting to watch these people create real human beings out of our words. They have come up with such incredible ideas all on their own, and it's amazing to see all that they get from just a script. It's an honor to have all of these incredible people working on the first reading of my show, and I've already learned so much from all of them.
What do you hope people take away from this story?
This story has always been incredibly important to Jeffrey and me. During our junior and senior years of high school, it seemed like every few months we got the news that someone at our school or in our county had committed suicide. For the next few days, there would be a constant stream of Facebook posts, where our friends would post about the people they had lost and share stories and photos of the beautiful lives that ended too soon. As soon as one of these tragedies happened, there would be a spike in the discussion of suicide, depression, and mental illness for a day or two and then the talking would end until the next tragedy struck. We saw this happen time and time again and we were frustrated. What if we never stopped talking? Would lives be saved? We hope that people see this as an authentic story because in life not everything has a happy ending, but it's important that we can still find the moments of light. Mental illness and depression should not be a taboo topic; they should be discussed because suicide is one of the leading causes of death among youth. This story is about second chances, learning to live with the life you've been given, and learning to accept yourself. It's important to note that we are not mental health experts; we are storytellers trying to shed light on an issue that needs it, and human beings trying to do our part to end the stigma of mental illness.
"Something Ever After" will be playing October 14th and 15th in Cammilleri Hall. There is a recommended $5 donation at the door. For updates on tickets and shows, visit http://www.uscmtr.com/