In The Limelight
The Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre doesn’t do anything small.
Take, for example, this summer’s selection: “Les Miserables.”
The Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre is a two-decade-old summer theatre program for middle and high schoolers and the version of “Les Miserable” that it will present this summer was designed especially for performers in that age bracket.
The junior version isn’t all that different from the senior one, according to the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre’s executive program director, Andrew Sherman. “There are some cuts to it,” he said, “Some reduction of chorus parts and solos. A verse here, a verse there. They cut out some transition music.”
Sherman is grateful for the cuts. They make the show a little more manageable. “It’s usually a two-and-a-half-hour show,” he said. “The student version is two hours.”
Just because it’s “a little more” manageable doesn’t mean that the manager in question, Sherman, doesn’t have his hands full.
This is a show with 70 young cast members, Sherman said. It is a show with elaborate sets and multitudinous props. It is a show that has been described as sweeping, majestic and epic.
It is a show that is “sung-through,” meaning that the characters express themselves in song and only song.
This is the second show Sherman has directed for the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre since taking charge. His first, in 2019, was “West Side Story” (another challenging show for people working either side of the backdrop).
“Les Miserables,” which opens July 23 at the University of Saint Francis’ Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center, was supposed to be last summer’s show, but the COVID pandemic postponed the exploits of bread-swiper Jean Valjean and his nemesis, Javert.
Undoubtedly due to the postponement of such a popular show, 130 kids showed up to the audition, Sherman said.
“That was a very hard weekend,” he said. “There were crazy hard decisions to be made, especially after the year we’ve had. It’s heart-wrenching to have to cut 30 or 40 kids.
“I will say that this will be the largest ‘One Day More’ you’ve ever seen,” Sherman said, referring to the rousing song that ends Act One.
The students represent 23 high schools and several middle schools, he said.
“I’ve got a kid coming all the way from Goshen, Indiana,” Sherman said. “And I have a kid coming all the way from Antwerp, Ohio.”
“Why do these shows have to be so big?” is a question some readers might be thinking.
It all has to do with the raison d’être of Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre.
It was established in the late 1990s by educators Kirby Volz and Janette Walsh. Both remain with the theater. Walsh is a member of the board. Volz, who heads the theater program at South Side High School, is the organization’s executive artistic producer and appeared as Doc, the drugstore owner, in the 2019 production of “West Side Story.”
They wanted to give kids access to the sorts of Broadway extravaganzas that middle and high school teachers and administrators tend to avoid for various practical reasons, especially technical complexity.
“Our whole mission statement is to produce pieces of theater that middle schools and high schools usually steer away from because of the size of the show or the costs that go into the show,” Sherman said. “‘Les Miz’ is not a cheap show to produce and we try to take shows like that and do them the absolute best.”
Sherman, who is the assistant director of show choirs at Homestead High School during the fall and spring semesters, started at the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre as a young crew member working the soundboard.
“I grew up through the program,” he said. “I did it every summer in high school and then two or three summers after it.”
He was hired as the organization’s marketing director and then was promoted to assistant director.
“When Kirby decided that he would like to have his summers back,” Sherman said, “he graciously asked me if I would take the reins.”
The shows that the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre presents are paid for in various ways: Corporate sponsorships, fundraisers, and a modest participation fee of the sort that kids in baseball and soccer leagues typically pay.
The company’s biggest fundraiser, Sherman said, is an “adopt an actor” program.
“We ask every student that is in one of our productions to sell five or six adopt-an-actor packets,” he said. “Really, all it is is a $9 donation. It’s two adult tickets and then the $9 donation gets their name in the program and gives them the opportunity to reserve seats before tickets go on sale to the general public.”
Although “Les Miserables” will be happening at the USF PAC, the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre has no permanent performance space. Past shows have been staged at Canterbury High School and South Side High School.
“We’re hoping that we can kind of get away from that,” Sherman said, referring to the company’s itinerancy.
There have been several major recent developments at Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre that have dramatically altered its trajectory.
An umbrella organization called Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation was formed and 501c3 status was acquired.
This status “makes applying for grants, which we are in the process of doing for the first time, a little easier,” Sherman said. “Donations can also be officially tax deductible and we have a tax-exempt number for purchases of things like lumber for sets, costumes, props, etc.”
With help from Leslie Koehlinger Russ and the Koehlinger Foundation, the Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation has established a base of operations at RKF Studios on Lake Avenue.
There is space at RKF Studios for other arts organizations who want to join the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre under the “collaborate umbrella” of the Indiana Music Theatre Foundation, Sherman said.
“With the development of IMTF,” he said, “it is collaboration, growth of community organizations and kind of just having a central hub for: ‘What can I help you with? What can you help us with? How can we better
Sherman hopes to add a second Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre show to the schedule next year and to do more shows in the future that are aimed at adult actors and patrons.
The dates for a production of “American Idiot,” based on the concept album from Green Day, will be announced soon, Sherman said. fwsmt.com