24 Feb 2021

Creating the 2021 HBS Show: Safety, Community, and a Bit of Musical Magic


by Shona Simkin

The HBS Show, now in its 48th year, is always a highly-anticipated event that draws the entire community of students, faculty, and staff together. The annual musical is entirely written, directed, produced, and performed by HBS students. As we creep toward the March 10 anniversary of the announcement of classes moving online due the pandemic, it feels ever more important to find moments of celebration, collaboration, and community.

Tickets for this year’s April 22 and 24 show will go on sale in March.

While the theme of the Show will remain a closely guarded secret until that date, we do know that it will be a full-length feature film musical—a combination of pre-recorded music and dance numbers filmed in and around Boston. The team had held out hope for an in-person show, but after researching various recording facilities and evaluating local guidance over winter break, they decided that a fully-virtual experience was the best, and safest, option.

Show Director Sam Miller (MBA 2021), considers film a close second to a live musical performance. “We’ve all been lacking in-person experiences in this time of COVID, and much of the live performance industry is on pause. However, I wanted to give the Show a full visual presentation that takes people into another world for the night. For me, theater has always been an opportunity to escape the real world and venture into a new place. I hope we’ll do that for the HBS community as well with our movie-musical production.”

While not giving a single hint to the theme, Miller and Head Writer Sara ‘Figes’ Figel (MBA 2021) say that the Show will address many aspects of this past year, with an important focus on the role of community. “Our hope is that the script captures the range of experiences we're all having at HBS this year,” said Figel. “Despite the many different places we may be, the lives we’re leading, our shared connection to HBS is really something special—and has endured despite everything.”

In past years, rehearsals and meetings were part of the thrumming, vibrant campus culture. Last year’s show was able to hold one full run-through before the student actors, musicians, dancers, writers, composers, and choreographers dispersed around the world. 2020 Show Director Ethan Karetsky (MBA 2020) considers the pivot to virtual to be the greatest leadership challenge he has ever faced.

Amid guidance that was changing daily, sometimes hourly, the 2020 team had to re-envision the entire production. Gone were the orchestral numbers, as there was no time to record individual performances for a master edited version. Dance numbers were simplified, individual music videos were filmed to salvage what they could of the original songs, and editors worked around the clock to knit the final product together. “James Bond 007: From Allston With Love” was indeed a love letter to and from HBS.

“We were lucky that it all came together in the way it did, and that we were able to bridge the different formats. It was really special and hopefully brought joy to the community at a time when it was struggling. I'm grateful for the team that stuck with it; folks were resilient and found a way to make it happen,” reflected Karetsky.

Twin sisters Jennifer and Christine Schoppe (MBA 2015), directors of the 2014 and 2015 shows, echoed Karetsky’s sentiment on leadership and management. “You're running a 60-person team in different departments for almost an entire year. It’s really almost like standing up a startup,” said Jennifer. “When I reflect on practical management experience at HBS, I point to the Show. It's people management, product development, marketing, managing budget, and an entirely enjoyable time,” Christine added.

While this year’s leadership team had the advantage of deciding earlier in the process to produce a virtual program, that did not translate to it being a simple task. The coordination has, in fact, been nothing short of a massive logistical puzzle.

In July, the 10 writers began creating a script that would allow small cohorts of actors to rehearse and film together whenever possible—Show pandemic pods, if you will. Auditions were held via Zoom, with hopeful performers sending videos of their singing and dancing prowess. Call-backs were in a dedicated Zoom room with participants reading heavily redacted scripts to get a sense of each character, their interactions with other actors, and the chemistry of the team. Figel noted that that chemistry was a crucial component of the casting process, as the script rests upon ensembles rather than leads to allow for more flexibility and safety in production.

The first full script read-through was right after Thanksgiving. With 45 people on the call, it was the first time for all involved to see it come together. “Even though the actors were reading it cold, they brought such energy and talent that it helped us all get excited about the work that was ahead. We were so energized by what it could be,” said Figel.

Rehearsals are currently underway. With campus COVID protocol and personal safety at the top of everyone’s mind, HBS Show Stage Manager Alex Green (MBA 2021) is working hand-in-hand with HBS Operations and administration to find safe spaces for socially distanced, masked, in-person rehearsals. For actors, that usually means Aldrich classrooms; for singers it’s outdoor campus spaces; for musicians it’s recording studios. When in-person isn’t possible, they all transition to a virtual format, which has been helpful for practicing facial expressions and reactions, which are challenging with masks. “We've tried to incorporate safety protocols into every stage, from the way that it's written to how it’s cast and produced,” said Figel.

In the absence of traditional campus life and spaces, the cast, crew, and production team have eagerly invested additional time, resources, and creativity to live the age-old adage ‘the show must go on.’ “The Show is our way of celebrating, appreciating, and giving back to HBS,” said Miller. “It has been particularly important to include the broader HBS community in the production, with partners, staff, and faculty more involved and represented. We want to make sure that everyone feels the love and joy of this creative craziness. We’re all doing this to bring more joy to everyone, especially right now, so we hope when people experience this year’s production, they’ll see it was a labor of love and gratitude.” Figel concurred, “We think the show is pretty magical—and this year it's taken a little extra blood, sweat, tears, and fairy dust.”

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