Let's Put on a Show: Students Cook Up Innovative Online Musical

September 16, 2010

September 15, 2010 — While most University of Virginia students are sleeping in, catching up with friends or cheering on the Cavalier football team on any given Saturday, the nearly 50-member cast and crew of "Musical: The Online Musical" are hard at work.

The musical, written and produced by College of Arts & Sciences fourth-year student Jeffery Luppino-Esposito, an English and American studies major, and third-year Matt Savarese, a media studies major, won't ever take the stage.

Instead, five- to 10-minute segments will be posted on YouTube each Monday, starting with the Sept. 20 premiere. Each week, viewers can make suggestions as to what they think should happen in the following week's episode.

Luppino-Esposito said that he knew he wanted the musical to be interactive before he and Savarese even decided on a plot. As the musical is still a work in progress, he says he is unsure as to how much of the plot will be based on fan suggestions.

Luppino-Esposito said he anticipates being pleasantly surprised by the quality of some suggestions.

Luppino-Esposito said they are both interested in online media outlets, but because the two work by "bouncing ideas off of each other," he is unsure exactly how they came up with the idea of an interactive musical.

The plot itself is a bit unusual, he added. The characters literally live in a musical, a fact that only the main character realizes. He is seen as a social outcast, but only because he does not know the script and dance moves.

Since the next episode is so reliant on feedback on the current week's program, filming will be more rushed and hectic than usual for a weekly show. Luppino-Esposito and Savarese will work throughout the week writing the script and music for the next installment, and most of the filming will occur on Saturdays. Luppino-Esposito will handle the bulk of the directing and filming, while Savarese will focus on the musical aspects of the program.

"We're going to have anyone who has a solo or a lead in that episode come in early and learn their part," Savarese said. "The rest of the cast comes in around noon."

Filming continues well into the evening, he said. On Sunday and Monday, the production team comes in to edit and perfect the final product for its 8 p.m. YouTube posting.

Multiple scenes will be worked on at once, Savarese said. Because he oversees the musical aspects of production, Luppino-Esposito handles the more traditional acting portions and fourth-year Erin McDonald, an accounting major in the McIntire School of Commerce, is in charge of choreography, as many as three scenes can be in action at any given time.

Production of "Musical: The Online Musical" will likely continue throughout the semester. If the program garners enough support, Luppino-Esposito said he would like to continue the project into the spring semester as well.

As such, the cast and crew will face all new obstacles, such as working around temporary sets, Savarese said.

"This is something so new for everyone," he said. "All the parameters are completely destroyed."

Luppino-Esposito added, however, that he has high hopes for the project. So far, the cast and crew have been posting "shameless plugs" on their Facebook pages to raise awareness about the show's premiere, he said. He is also marketing the project to bloggers who specialize in musical theater.

Furthermore, Luppino-Esposito developed a relationship with the cast of the "Harry Potter: The Musical," another online musical filmed by students at the University of Michigan, while he was writing for an online pop culture journal he created, PopSense.com. He said he thinks their support will be instrumental in promoting "Musical: The Online Musical" because "exactly our target audience is watching their stuff." Luppino-Esposito and Savarese hope to reach as many musical theater aficionados as possible from all over the country.

Savarese added that he hopes to get people further involved by producing interactive games to go with the show. He said he hopes, for instance, to produce and send out karaoke tracks of the musical's songs.

"Musical: The Online Musical" is being funded by a grant that Savarese and Luppino-Esposito received last year from winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Inter-University Academic Collaborative's Fellows in Creativity and Innovation Award for "Sorting Through," a musical they co-wrote and produced last semester. Luppino-Esposito is also donating grant money he received from the same award to PopSense.com.

Though the "Online Musical" project is not formally affiliated with U.Va., Luppino-Esposito and Savarese say that the University has been greatly helpful in production. The Digital Media Lab loaned them a camera for the semester, and Facilities Management helped secure a filming location in the Dell, Savarese said.

For now, the cast, and especially Luppino-Esposito and Savarese, are eagerly awaiting Monday night's premiere.

"Sincerely, I am just excited to finally share what we have been so excited about with everyone else," Luppino-Esposito said.

"Musical: The Online Musical" will be posted Mondays at 8 p.m. at youtube.com/theonlinemusical and at theonlinemusical.com.

-- by Samantha Koon