It's hard to imagine a more appropriate choice for a high-school theater troupe in 2020 than Les Misérables. Les Mis, after all, is set and its storyline built around a barricade.
There are barricades galore around staging a musical with a sizable cast during a pandemic. Foremost among them: setting up virtual auditions, adjusting the staging for social-distance rehearsals, nailing down camera angles and, above all, keeping the principals healthy and safe.
"We knew we were on a wing and a prayer," artistic director Jodene Wartman said. "Every day, we went 'whew!'"
The wings worked, and the prayers were answered. Eagan High School's production of Les Misérables: Student Edition will be available for streaming from Dec. 12 through Jan. 31.
Much to the near-astonishment of senior Cooper Swanson, who plays Thénardier.
"The biggest surprise for me is that we pulled it off," Swanson said. "I expected us to get shut down in the first three weeks."
That was averted thanks largely to the exceptional discipline shown by Swanson and his cast mates.
"The only reason this happened was because people listened to the plan and followed it," he said. "Even if one kid had said at Halloween, 'I want to party,' they wouldn't."
Instead, they rehearsed, staying 8 to 12 feet apart many of them standing amid the theater's seats and removing their masks only when it came time to sing. Just one performer had to isolate medically after his sister was exposed to COVID-19, while a few tech people and chorus members quarantined after exposure in a math class and a cheer practice.
But all hands were doing their own form of isolating, not an easy task for fun-loving teens.
"We begged them on weekends to not do sleepovers or go to restaurants," Wartman said.
For his part, Swanson said, "I was near the people I want to hang out with and have fun with but couldn't."
As cases mounted in Minnesota, the production schedule was ramped up. The original filming was slated for just before Thanksgiving, but moved up two weeks to early November.
When the final scenes had wrapped, "the kids just fell apart because they had pushed this so hard," Wartman said. "We had young men blubbering, lots of tears and hugging with masks on. None of us were going to stop them."
Hitting the right notes
Les Mis was not part of the original plan. Wartman & Co. had opted for the more recent musical Elf, then realized "we couldn't do that because it required so many kids." She was a longtime fan of Les Mis, and the new choice was easier.
"I knew we had the right voices," she said. "It's unusual for its high notes, which is the hard part, but I knew we had the men for it."
While obstacles abounded, ample cooperation and coordination are what made Les Mis happen. With strong support from school principal Polly Reikowski, who even popped in at rehearsals, Wartman teamed with vocal director/producer Amy Jo Cherner, and they started with a bit of downsizing, from a cast of 50-plus to 34. (Many students play multiple smaller roles.)
Aspiring troupers recorded themselves on Google Drive and then did callbacks for the major roles.
"Jodene and I did the final casting in 45 minutes," Cherner said.
It helped to build around what Cherner called "a dynamite senior class," a half-dozen of whom have been performing together since elementary school.
Cherner focused on vocals early on and found an immediate predicament.
"We could no longer have band rehearsal, so we had to use [prerecorded music from] MTI. The hard part was that there were no tempo variations so no chance [for a singer] to make it their own."
On the other hand, she was able to reap one pandemic benefit.
"Because of the hybrid [school] schedule we were on, I was able to call in students on days they didn't have classes."
She also urged her cast to practice the "straw technique," devised by Lisa Butcher, a speech-language pathologist and vocologist at the University of Minnesota's Lions Voice Clinic.
"You put your lips around a straw, and it resets your vocals," Cherner said, "and it creates the right amount of air to stretch your vocal folds."
Location, location, location
Meanwhile, Wartman was preparing a safe set.
"I had a floor plan and kind of moved the kids around like chess pieces," she said. "The students built the barricade, and it was perfect for our needs."
The two of them worked with some invaluable experts, one of whom went way back with Wartman. Technical director Jon Ratzloff, who set up microphones and "anything that has to do with the physical aspect" had played Mr. Bungle in Annie years ago when Wartman was portraying Miss Hanigan.
She also lauded camera director Paul Saxton for his work with color modifications, and costume designer Rita Anderson for adjusting to having just one outfit for each player.
"The entire artistic staff gave everything they really could," Wartman said.
As did the students, Cherner added.
"These kids are one of a kind in terms of work ethic. They were so grateful for the opportunity so they pulled out every trick to make it work."
One of the primary "tricks" was finding inspiration with no one in the seats.
"Performers feed off the audience," Swanson said, "and we couldn't really feed off that energy. So you have to dredge it up from within yourself."
And so they did.
"We dreamed big," Wartman said, "and the students delivered."