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Theater Bug's Bite Detours U.Va. Grad from Pre-Law to Nickelodeon

May 17, 2011 — When Jeff Luppino-Esposito was admitted to the University of Virginia during the fall of his senior year under the (since-discontinued) early decision program, he planned to pursue a law degree. But, after an encounter with musical theater in his final semester of high school, those plans exited the stage.

Instead, Luppino-Esposito will graduate from U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences on May 22 with a double major in English language and literature and American studies. He is also one of the creative masterminds behind such projects as "Musical: The Online Musical" and "Pokemon: The Musical," produced during his undergraduate years.
 
After making his stage debut in his New Jersey high school's production of "Into The Woods," Luppino-Esposito found himself curious about what he had been missing.

At U.Va., he discovered First-Year Players, an independent, student-run theater group, at the start of his first semester. The rest, as they say, is history.

"It made my experience here," he said. The troupe gave him an opportunity to mature artistically and to meet other students from various schools and majors with similar interests. He acted in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Damn Yankees" during his first year, and served as an assistant director in his second year.

He began writing for the theater in the spring 2010 semester, when his friend, third-year student Matt Savarese, a media studies and music double major in the College from New York, approached him about an idea for a one-act musical.

Savarese envisioned a show about dealing with the death of the main character's mother while sorting through her belongings. Luppino-Esposito wrote the script and the lyrics? for "Sorting Through," while Savarese compiled the musical arrangements.

"It was a challenge, but we were able to put it up in the spring," Luppino-Esposito said.

Since then, the two have collaborated on several projects, building a cohesive musical theater community at U.Va.

Last semester, they created "Musical: The Online Musical," which aired in short, weekly "webisodes" posted on YouTube. Viewers could subscribe to the content and make suggestions as to what should happen next.

A moderate success, the team reconvened this semester to write and produce two mini-musicals, as well as a one-act play based on Rebecca Black's song, "Friday."

"For some reason, everyone trusted us in the beginning," Luppino-Esposito said. A team of about 15 eager performers has proven itself very dedicated to the cause, he said.

Often, the musicals are the result of a spur-of-the-moment idea or conversation. Still, the committed cast and crew frequently will drop everything to come out and film, playing anything from a ditsy high school student to one of the country's founding fathers.

"As much as they are versatile, they are also very willing," Luppino-Esposito said.

He estimates that about 95 percent of the core players were a part of First-Year Players. The only stipulation for participation is that first-years cannot be involved. This gives them the chance to participate in First-Year Players.

The ensemble's work gained national attention with this month's release of "Pokemon: The Musical." A four-minute musical based on the popular children's show and card game, the YouTube video received over a quarter of a million views in the first week since it was posted May 3. The number of subscribers to their YouTube account, OnlineMusical, has increased from 300 to more than 1,500.

Songs from "Pokemon: The Musical" are available on iTunes and bandcamp.com. The musical has been featured on such websites as dorkly.com and todaysbigthing.com.

"I'm overwhelmed, but excited," he said. The runaway success of "Pokemon: The Musical" could not have come at a better time.

In just a few weeks, Luppino-Esposito will say good-bye to Charlottesville and move to New York City, where he will intern for the summer at Nickelodeon as a summer associate. He hopes to stay with the company as a full-time employee after the completion of his internship, which has a high retention rate.

Still, Luppino-Esposito said this does not mark the end of the musical theater group, or even his involvement in it.

"I'll still be working on this, too," he said. "My heart will always be in this stuff."

Next year, while Savarese is in his fourth year, the creative duo will continue to brainstorm ideas for performances over the phone or using Skype. Because they always composed music and lyrics separately, Luppino-Esposito said that part of production will not be very different. Savarese will lead most rehearsals, and Luppino-Esposito will travel to Charlottesville to help with the filming process on occasional weekend trips.

Due in part to the success of "Pokemon: The Musical," Luppino-Esposito is confident that the group can survive a long-distance creative relationship.

"It's nice to go out with something everyone feels a part of," he said.

— By Samantha Koon

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