Insights into the Impact of COVID-19 on Musical Theater Education

Insights into the Impact of COVID-19 on Musical Theater Education

The Show Must Go On… Or Must It?

As a lifelong musical theater enthusiast, I’ve always been captivated by the electric energy of a live performance. The curtain rising, the orchestra swelling, the actors’ voices soaring – it’s a truly magical experience that transports you to another world. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that world seemed to come crashing down. Theaters went dark, productions were shuttered, and the vibrant community of performers, educators, and patrons found themselves in uncharted territory.

As I delved into the data released by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the stark reality of the pandemic’s impact on the arts and cultural sector became clear. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, arts and cultural production fell by 6.4%, nearly twice the rate of the overall economy’s decline of 3.4%. The performing arts, in particular, were devastated, with “few areas of the US economy [being] harder hit” during that time.

But as a passionate advocate for the arts, I refused to let this disheartening news dampen my spirits. Instead, I set out to uncover the inspiring stories of resilience and innovation that emerged from the musical theater community in the face of unimaginable challenges. And what I discovered has only strengthened my belief in the power of the stage to transform lives and bring people together, even in the darkest of times.

Adapting to a New Stage

One of the first things I learned is that musical theater educators and students had to rapidly adapt to an entirely new way of learning and performing. With in-person classes and productions shuttered, the show had to go on – but in a virtual format.

“It was a steep learning curve for everyone,” recalls Jess Tonai, a senior music education and vocal performance major at Chapman University and the vice president of the school’s Mariachi Club. “Suddenly, we were all thrust into this online world, trying to figure out how to effectively teach and rehearse musical theater through a screen.”

For many, the transition was far from seamless. Tonai shared that even simple tasks like tuning instruments or providing feedback on vocal technique became exponentially more challenging. The lack of in-person interaction and the technological glitches that often plagued virtual rehearsals tested the patience and creativity of both students and educators.

But as Tonai and her fellow Mariachi Club members discovered, adversity can sometimes spark innovation. “We had to get really innovative with how we engaged our members and kept the music alive,” she explains. “Things like pre-recording parts, using virtual backdrops, and finding ways to still perform together – even if it was through a screen.”

The Show Must Go On(line)

This spirit of resilience and adaptation extended far beyond the walls of Chapman University. Across the country, musical theater programs scrambled to reimagine their curricula and performances for the digital age.

“It was challenging, but also incredibly rewarding,” says Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. “The arts and cultural sector continued to play an outsized role in the US economy, even as it sustained heavy losses. And we saw so many inspiring examples of how the arts and arts education were able to transform lives and communities in the midst of the pandemic.”

One such example is the virtual production of “Godspell” put on by the Musical Theater program at the University of California, Irvine. By leveraging the power of technology, the students were able to create a seamless, visually stunning show that captivated audiences from the comfort of their own homes.

“It was a real test of our creativity and technical skills,” shares Abby, a junior musical theater major who played the role of Gilmer in the production. “But in the end, I think we actually created something really special. The virtual format allowed us to experiment with new camera angles, lighting, and visual effects in a way that you just can’t do on a traditional stage.”

Abby’s sentiments echo those of many musical theater students and educators I spoke with. While the pandemic undoubtedly posed significant challenges, it also inspired a newfound appreciation for the adaptability and innovative spirit of the theater community.

The Lasting Impact

As the data from the NEA and BEA illustrates, the road to recovery for the arts and cultural sector has been a long and arduous one. While the sector continues to play a vital role in the US economy, contributing $876.7 billion or 4.2% to the national GDP in 2020, the losses sustained during the pandemic have been staggering.

But even as the curtains begin to rise once more and in-person productions make their comeback, the impact of COVID-19 on musical theater education and the performing arts as a whole will be felt for years to come.

“The pandemic has really forced us to rethink the way we approach arts education and the performing arts in general,” reflects Dr. Jackson. “It’s highlighted the importance of building resilience, adaptability, and a strong digital presence – qualities that will be crucial for the long-term sustainability of the sector.”

For Jess Tonai and her fellow Mariachi Club members, the lessons learned during the pandemic have been invaluable. “We’ve become so much more tech-savvy and comfortable with virtual performance,” she says. “And that’s opened up so many new possibilities for us – from reaching a wider audience to collaborating with artists and musicians around the world.”

As I reflect on the journey of the musical theater community through the pandemic, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe and inspiration. The resilience, creativity, and unwavering passion that have shone through during these challenging times are a testament to the power of the arts to uplift, educate, and bring people together, even in the darkest of times.

And as I look ahead to the future of musical theater education, I’m filled with a renewed sense of optimism. The Musical Theater Center – a hub of education, performance, and community – will undoubtedly play a crucial role in nurturing the next generation of theater artists and educators, equipping them with the skills and mindset to thrive in an ever-evolving industry.

After all, the show must go on – and with the extraordinary resilience and innovation that I’ve witnessed, I have no doubt that it will.

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