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Music to their ears — EHS teachers produce 25 school musicals together

November 24, 2012
By Dorothy McKnight ( , Daily Press

ESCANABA - The pair have been making music together for a long time.

To be more exact, the duo, both teachers at Escanaba High School, have each been sharing their musical talent for the benefit of almost a generation of students at their school, much to the appreciation of the families and other members of the community who turn out to watch the students perform.

Their most recent production was the Broadway and theater hit, "West Side Story," which was reproduced on the stage at Escanaba High School under the direction of choreographer, Lynn Soderberg, and music director, John Beck.

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Dorothy McKnight | Daily Press

Lynn Soderberg and John Beck, both teachers at Escanaba High School, have collaborated on 25 musical productions at their school. Soderberg works with staging and choreograph and Beck directs the orchestra and chorus. Their newest production was “West Side Story.

Beck, who has been directing the EHS Chorus and Chorale for 35 years, directed his first high school musical in 1979.

"I didn't come in until about three years later. I worked as choreographer for six years and then took over as director," said Soderberg, who is a 30-year member of Players de Noc. "Our first play together was 'Annie' in 1987. This is our 25th musical together."

Nodding at Soderberg, Beck added, "She does the dramatics and I do the music."

Soderberg readily admits there are differences between directing Players' musicals and those on the high school stage. "John directed several pit orchestras for Players and I have acted in over 30 Players' productions over the years and directed one musical - 'State Fair,'" she said. "Although we've used children in some of the productions, for the most part, they are adults playing adult parts. With high school productions, you're trying to turn teenagers into adults."

The amount of volunteers available to Players far exceeds the extra help that Soderberg and Beck receive at school.

"With Players, there's lots more help with such things as costumes and publicity," she said. Her husband, Jim, helps with the technical work and Beck's wife, Kim, plays in the pit. "Fortunately we have some adults who are willing to come in here (at the high school) and help out every year."

Both agreed that the musical "The King and I" was perhaps the most challenging because of the size of the cast.

"There were 63 in the cast and we needed both older students and children to put it on," said Soderberg. "We had to go into the grade school to find them and eventually there were kids as young as third-grade in it. Fortunately, at the time, we had the right kids and it was beautiful. And the costumes were absolutely wonderful."

Beck and Soderberg pointed out the difference in many of the musicals they have worked on over the years.

"You expect dancing, singing and acting in a musical," Beck said. "But some musicals require less dancing and more acting on stage. But you still need the musicians in the orchestra."

"You always have to cast a show knowing you have to put the best people in just the right spot," Soderberg said. "We both take our job very seriously. We may like them when they audition but they don't always get the part they want. We try to use a rotation to try to get as many kids as we can during their years in high school. I've never been unhappy with the decisions. John may have wanted one person and I wanted someone else. We've always been able to talk it through."

Totally in agreement, Beck added, "There are a lot of checks and balances in our decisions. But it's very much a mutual decision."

Over the years, musicals have been repeated on the high school stage, including "Annie," which was reproduced in 2005, and "Bye Bye Birdie," which was performed for a second time in 1991 and yet again in 2010.

"Bye Bye, Birdie" was first done in the mid 1970s when Conrad Beck (John Beck's father) and Jack Romstad worked on it," said Soderberg. "They were the first two directors of the musicals when the high school opened in 1963. Then Peter Adamini took over the stage direction for 17 years, working with both Conrad Beck and then John after his father passed away."

"Even productions that have been done again and again are so different because they are staged a little bit different," Beck added.

Two of Soderberg's favorite musicals she helped produce at the high school have been "The Wizard of Oz" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

"We're doing my favorite musical right now," Beck declared. "I've frequently thought about doing 'West Side Story' but we weren't able to. We needed lots of guys because there are two gangs, and both gangs have to be able to sing. Plus there's a tremendous amount of choreography and the orchestration is the hardest we've ever done. Not everyone on stage is there for every scene, but the pit orchestra has to be there for all of them. It's been difficult but it's still amazing that we're able to do it."

"We try to pick an entirely different show ever year, especially in the four years that each student is here," Soderberg said. "We want each student to have a totally different experience - to not have to sing the same type music or wear the same type of costumes."

Beck expressed the feeling that working with student theater provides the students with a unique experience.

"We have about 65 kids try out each year - just in acting," Beck said. "For 'West Side Story,' we had 80 try out. There are 30 in the orchestra and 42 cast members."

However, those who were not selected to be on stage are not turned away.

"We always have at least 50 or 60 working back stage," Soderberg added. "We always have more than 100 involved in each production. These are one of the biggest events during any school year. It's our job to put as many kids in any given show as we can handle - if not on stage, then backstage. Anyone who wants to be in the show, we try to find a way for them to be a part. That's our best legacy."

Despite the student interest in theater at the high school, being able to provide enough students to put on a production has not been entirely smooth sailing for the directors.

"It's always been a challenge," Soderberg said. "When I started here, this was a Class A school and now it's a Class B. We're lucky if each class has 200 kids in it. But we're also fortunate that so many of them want to be involved."

The downsizing hasn't affected Beck in the least.

"Even though the school size is shrinking, I'm still having the same number of kids," he said.

Another challenge is the cost of putting on a musical. Just the price of royalties and rentals can cost as much as $3,500 to $4,000.

"We rent the music and the scripts as soon as we decide on the musical," Beck said. "Then there's a fee for each night's performance and that can be between $500 and $800 a night. We have to pay for the rights to do it and still have to rent the music."

Soderberg said they have been fortunate in the costume department and can borrow costumes from Players de Noc if they are available.

"But there are still a lot of costumes that we make from scratch, depending on the musical," she said. "For one production, we needed old-time bathing suits and Flapper dresses."

Opening night is a momentous occasion for both directors.

"We're so proud of the tradition we have here year after year," said Soderberg. "We both love music and love kids, and, as educators, we feel we have a lot to offer. It's a grueling schedule because we rehearse for two months but it's satisfying at the same time. Come into this room on opening night and see how electric it is. It's an overwhelming experience. Despite our combined years of doing musicals, it's new every night."

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