Music News & Reviews

Georgetown College professor writes musical so it fits her student cast

As Robert Schumann, senior Nathan Van Til sings of his  enchantment with his piano teacher's  daughter.
As Robert Schumann, senior Nathan Van Til sings of his enchantment with his piano teacher's daughter. Lexington Herald-Leader

Usually a director picks a show then has auditions to find a cast. But Georgetown College voice professor Heather Hunnicutt has always done it in reverse, finding a cast and then finding the show to fit it.

The thing was, when she auditioned the cast for this fall's production by the school's Lyric Theatre Society, she couldn't find a show for them.

"Nothing did them justice," Hunnicutt said, referring specifically to seniors Nathan Van Til and Elizabeth Maines. "It was the combination of these people and these voices. With their talent and group dynamics, nothing fit, and I wanted something that fit."

So she wrote something.

This weekend, the operatic group, which usually presents shows by Gilbert and Sullivan and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, will present Clara, My Love, an original "art song musical" based on the dramatic love story of composers and pianists Robert and Clara Schumann.

"I'd always found their story fascinating and I had a plan to write it at some point," Hunnicutt says of the Schumanns' story, which has been chronicled in books and on film, from 1947's Song of Love starring Katherine Hepburn to 1983's Spring Symphony with Nastassja Kinski.

"There's never been a musical or something centered around their music, which, to me, is crazy because that's what their lives were all about," Hunnicutt says.

Students in the show say they had become used to Hunnicutt's reverse method of staging shows. Still, they weren't necessarily prepared for her to write a show.

"It was a complete surprise," Maines, a senior from Georgetown, said. "I knew she had been a journalism student, but I didn't know she writes shows."

Van Til, who plays Robert, says, "In the past we joked about writing our own shows because it's expensive to put on musicals.

"But we never thought it would actually happen. So we were kind of surprised when she said, 'OK. Here's the deal: It hasn't been written yet.'"

It was helpful that Hunnicutt auditions for the fall show in the spring, so she had the summer to write her script.

Senior Shakir Mackey, who plays Clara's overbearing father, says, "I was excited because she knows our voices, so she was writing according to what we can do."

The music relies heavily on the work of the Schumanns. The story centers around their meeting when Robert becomes a student of Clara's father, Friedrich, who drills his students to be able to play piano, "like a machine."

It is far from happily-ever-after as they marry against Friedrich's wishes, and Robert succumbs to mental illness. Hunnicutt describes her show as "a romantic tragedy."

"We got the script in our hands and said, 'Oh my gosh, their lives sound awful,'" Van Til says. "There were some nice moments, but that was the calm before the storm. The truth is stranger than fiction."

Hunnicutt says she spent the summer reading letters, diaries and memoirs of the musical couple, putting together the story with tunes they composed.

"I tried to tell the story as accurately as possible while still making theatrical sense," she says.

Hunnicutt says this is the first of her works to be produced. That is giving her the new experience of directing a work where she doesn't have to get inside the composer's head because she's the composer.

"You have this idea in your head, and then the actors have ideas of what they want to do, and the set designers and the costumers, and it becomes this growing, living organism," she says. "It's better, with more perspective."