Just a few minutes after the halftime whistle was blown at Saturday night’s White Out against Ohio State, the largest-ever crowd at Beaver Stadium was treated to a halftime spectacular that was the result of a unique collaboration between the School of Theatre’s Musical Theatre Program and the Penn State Blue Band.
As 2018 began, John Simpkins, head of musical theatre, was tossing around several ideas to commemorate Musical Theatre’s 25th anniversary, but after meeting Blue Band director, Greg Drane at an event in April it became clear that even his most ambitious plans just might be a possibility.
The like-minded duo formed a bond that quickly led to the conception of Saturday night’s halftime show that, for the first time ever, brought the Blue Band and Musical Theatre students together to create a Super Bowl-like show that featured song and dance performance numbers from the classic musicals “Jersey Boys”, “Hamilton”, and “Hair”.
“Greg and I have a shared passion for putting our students in lights where people can see how great they are,” Simpkins said. “The White Out offers those bright lights and we are beyond thrilled that we were able to bring two great organizations together to create a unique Penn State moment.”
As the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes were exiting the field, students and production professionals from Clair Global, a sound innovation company based in Lititz, and All Access Staging and Production pushed the sound system and stage onto the field. The detailed planning required the wheels of the carts to be a specific size and tread to avoid field damage, which Simpkins said offers a glimpse into the scope of the undertaking.
“I never thought that my life would include renting forklifts and talking about how the speaker system can cover an 110,000-seat stadium, but that’s what Greg and I have been buried in for almost six months,” Simpkins said. “This was a massive undertaking and I am so grateful to Greg for his vision and enthusiasm to bring our art to the people.”
After Simpkins and Drane designed the show, the two held a meeting with Beaver Stadium facilities, grounds and athletics staff members to pitch the grand idea. The response, Simpkins said, embodies the collaborative spirit of The University.
“When we started planning, we said let’s go and let’s do this until somebody says ‘no, that’s just too much,’” Simpkins said. “Every single person in the room said ‘that sounds exciting and how can we do it’ instead of ‘no way and here’s why,’ and that feels like Penn State to me.”
When the moment finally arrived, the atmosphere was electric and the stands, which typically lose fans to concessions and bathroom breaks, remained filled with Penn Staters standing shoulder-to-shoulder swaying to beat of the music. All 48 students in the Musical Theatre Program and the more than 300 members of the Blue Band performed intricate arrangements and choreography that complimented the soaring vocals coming from the stage at mid-field.
Following the show, Drane and Simpkins were extremely pleased with the performance and will use the experience, and challenges of putting on a production in a large venue, as a learning moment that will help both programs to reach their educational goals.
“We’re a band that’s going to take risks and we’re going to keep trying. That is the culture of our organization and that’s the culture of the Musical Theatre Program,” Drane said. “We came together to push the envelope of innovation and we hope that this collaboration showcased Penn State.”