Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: An extraordinary high school premiere in Green Bay

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The Book of Empty Pages Brandon Rockstroh_1507674043713.jpg

Green Bay Southwest High School has “World Premiere” attached to a musical that starts rehearsals Monday, Oct. 16.

This is an extremely unusual situation, and there are many steps leading up to how it is happening.

Central is Brandon M. Rockstroh, choral director at Southwest. He wrote the pop musical, “The Book of Empty Pages.”

Performances are at 7 p.m. Nov. 24, Nov. 25, Dec. 1, Dec. 8 and Dec. 9 in Southwest’s auditorium. Tickets will be available starting Nov. 5.

Information is at the show’s website – yes, it has its own website – www.thebookofemptypages.com.

The show is large, featuring a cast of 60, some playing multiple characters.

The story is one of love that arises out of something ugly, a deadly drunk-driving crash.

“The Book of Empty Pages” is part of a special year. Southwest is celebrating 50 years of musicals. In February, it will also mount the famed “Les Miserables.”

What’s more, Brandon Rockstroh envisions a future for “The Book of Empty Pages” beyond the performances at Southwest. Preparations are being made to enter the show into festivals that are stepping stones. Rockstroh is familiar with the territory, and his experience has given him a leg up on what to do and what to expect.

Part of what is happening is directly related to another musical that was written locally. Rockstroh participated in “Searching for Romeo,” created by Brian Sutton of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay faculty. “Searching for Romeo” was entered into the New York Musical Theatre Festival and earned the right to be produced in New York City.

In an interview with Rockstroh in his office at Southwest, this was the starting point:

Q. What influence did “Searching for Romeo” have on “The Book of Empty Pages”?

Rockstroh: Quite a bit. I always wanted to write a musical. It became a bucket list item of mine back in high school. I started writing it in 2008. Came up with a premise based on what my best friend in college (experienced). His sister was a caretaker for somebody who was in a drunk-driving accident that was not his fault, and she fell in love with him. I thought, “What an amazing story. That would be a perfect premise for a show.” So I built this fictional story off of that in 2008 and started writing some of the music, but didn’t really until Brian Sutton came to me with a “Searching for Romeo” premise in 2012. He approached me to be music director for the show. Immediately, I was interested because I knew I was wanting to write my own show.

Doing that with him that summer (was important). I ended up performing in it with my wife and then the following summer went out to New York City, and we performed in it in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. So it’s had just a huge influence – to see it change along the way and see Brian edit it and find out what contemporary musicals really require to “make it.” It was an invaluable experience for me.

Q. Is that one reason why you have an interest in the New York Musical Theatre Festival for “The Book of Empty Pages”?

Rockstroh: Yes, for sure. I’m going to submit it to that same festival. There are a couple of festivals that I’m going to submit it to. The National Association for Musical Theatre also does a festival, although it’s more selective.

I’m not unrealistic in thinking that this is going to be some big Broadway hit, but I’m also very hopeful that it could be a published show and produced potentially around the world by different theater companies. I just know that it’s at the beginning of its journey right now.

Q. What are you crazy?

Rockstroh, laughing: Yes, I am crazy.

Q. I gather the story came first.

Rockstroh: Yes.

Q. Stylistically, you say pop. That’s a broad term. It can have all kinds of variations depending on situations.

Rockstroh: Absolutely. There’s some emotional ballads, and there’s some silly, more comical songs. There’s a song at the beginning that is done with an electronic background track, and there’s rap in that one. It definitely has very many influences. The way I characterize it most to people is the new hit show “Dear Evan Hansen” is probably the most similar in musical style to what I’m going for.

Q. What is the size of orchestra?

Rockstroh: There’s a pit orchestra of seven people – piano, keyboard, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, violin, cello.

Q. Voicing can go from simple to complex – duets, trios, whatever. What is in “The Book of Empty Pages”?

Rockstroh: It has everything in it. Since I teach choir here, I was able to kind of write it with this school in mind, knowing my kids can handle eight-part harmony. I didn’t have individual students in mind for roles ever, but I did have the chorus as a whole, knowing their capabilities as choral singers.

Q. What prompted the creation of a website?

Rockstroh: It was early on, when we decided this will be our 50th annual musical here at Southwest. We decided we were going to do two shows about two years ago, so I knew this was going to be one of them. We’re doing “Les Miz” as our second production. So early on we started brainstorming with a team of people about how we’re going to get the word out. Our philosophy has been if we get the word out for this first show, at that show we can convince people to come to “Les Miz” because it’s a bigger name. To get people to come to a show that nobody knows is a challenge. So we knew we’d have to have some kind of online presence, which resulted in “Let’s do a website. Let’s have a social media presence and all the various hubs of contemporary social media.”

There was a dad in our program who does graphic design, and I just bought a Godaddy domain for thebookofemptypages.com. I had my own bare bones website, and he said “I’ve got some ideas,” and he revamped it. It looks really nice and professional now. It’s really just to get the word out and have people connect to something.

Q. To tell an administration you have a musical and to have the administration agree to produce the musical are two different things, correct? What do you think was the impetus for the administration to approving the production?

Rockstroh: That’s a great question. I love the Green Bay Public Schools and Green Bay Southwest High School, and both administrations were not only supportive of it, went above and beyond and said, “Let’s make it a staff night out of this.” They wanted to make it a big deal, rather than just saying yes, which they didn’t even have to do that.

Plus, it’s a heavy show. There’s death. There’s profanity. There’s cheating. It’s a heavy, adult-themed show. So for them to approve high schoolers doing that shows a lot of faith in our program, that we’re going to do it with class and dignity and try to be accurate to the story because it’s important to go tell it in an accurate manner. But at the same time we teach high school kids, and they’re still learning how to be adults, and I don’t want to speed that process up if they’re not ready for that.

Q. When do rehearsals start?

Rockstroh: We did a summer camp this summer for a week where we basically learned the show in a week, a 40-hour week, and then we resume Oct. 16. We’ve been hitting the recording studio with our band already. Our singers started doing that before Oct. 16 because we’re going to record an original soundtrack to put that on iTunes and stuff.

Q. Rehearsals are ahead, but the ducks are in a row. The cast is cast, and musicians are set. And?

Rockstroh: The set is mostly built already. Costumes are being gathered. We got a lot of that legwork done already.

Q. What are the key elements in the set? Are they physical, or is there video involved?

Rockstroh: It’s mostly physical sets. Part of it takes place in a hospital. There’s a party scene at the beginning. The whole story revolves around a drunk-driving crash, so we got a hold of a real car. There’s a local place that actually wrecked it for us. So we will have a real vehicle on stage that has one side that looks nice and then it crashes; we see the other side of it and people injured from it and the Jaws of Life and all that stuff.

We’re doing a dance scene in which a song is being sung about previous abuse, and behind a white screen we’re going to see silhouettes of two dancers dancing out an abuse scenario. That involves creative lighting to be able to do that.

Q. Is it an argumentative type of abuse?

Rockstroh: Yes, it’s a spousal situation.

Q. Did you have to show anybody a script before the project was approved?

Rockstroh: I told my principal the general premise and kind of warned him of some of the heavier content, and he just said, “I trust you. I trust you to do this with class.” I really value that support.

Q. Schools normally acquire published works. Putting on a musical is hard enough the way it is. Starting from scratch is a whole new ballgame. Like orchestrations.

Rockstroh: I hired an orchestrator (Emily Marshall). She was a pianist in “Hamilton” on Broadway. She lives in New York City. When I was out doing the New York Musical Theatre Festival, I made some connections there and got hooked up with her. She’s amazing. She did all the orchestrating. I wrote the stuff, and then we just collaborated. She’d send me some stuff, I’d give her some feedback and she’d put it together. It turned out beautiful. I love the way the orchestrations turned out.

Q. For the unannointed, what are orchestrations?

Rockstroh: That means something like this: You start with a singer/songwriter singing a song from the piano or the guitar.  I’m a pianist – so it was me mostly singing the songs from the piano, one voice and one instrument. The orchestrator made that work for seven different instruments. The parts are all complementary of one another. I gave her some ideas. If I want a certain part of the song to climax at this moment, she would build that in there so there’s more strings that lead up to the climax of the song. When the audience is listening to it, it feels more like a movie soundtrack rather than just a singer/songwriter singing along with their instrument.

Q. Were there any surprises along the way that the orchestrator came up with?

Rockstroh: Definitely. There was one song in particular where I said to her, “It’s the goofiest song in the show, and I want it to sound circusy.” What she sent back I immediately told her, “I hate it so much that it’s perfect.” I wanted it to sound goofy. So there are definitely surprises along the way.

It really was a true collaboration because sometimes I would have different vision. She’d send something, and I’d say, “That’s really not what I’m feeling.” Other times she would send something that was like, I could see it going in that direction. It added to the feel of what I already had in mind.

Q. You have a large cast.

Rockstroh: About 60. There are eight different leads, another seven or so supporting characters. There’s about 60 people in the entire cast.

Q. So that’s a bonus of being a high school choral teacher. There’s a ready-made cast.

Rockstroh: You betcha. The kids were excited when I announced. I knew we’d have a big enough cast because kids are interested in musical theater. I think if I take it to New York I’ll have to modify that because I can’t afford to pay 60 people.

Q. Even though rehearsals are yet to start, you may have a sense of this. Versus an off-the-shelf piece, to be working on something new – how are the students reacting?

Rockstroh: They love it. I told them Day One, “Guys, in many ways this is going to frustrate you because things are going to be changing. We’ll hear an exchange on stage and I’ll say, ‘That’s just not working. We’ve got to change that dialogue right now.’ But in the other sense, you have freedom to participate in this.”

So the students have been coming to me with various ideas of how things can run smoother, and I’ve taken some of those ideas. Others I don’t think will work as well. Ultimately, I want to be in the driver’s seat of my show, but I also don’t want to be in a position where it’s my way or the highway. This is a collaborative effort, and we’ve got some brilliant minds here, so when they come forward with ideas, I’m more than willing to incorporate some of those. In fact, many of the things that will be seen on stage in this show were come up with by the cast themselves. I think in that sense everyone is going to feel more ownership in a show like this than they would performing a work that is already printed, that you have to do it the way it’s written.

Q. In writing were you trying to draw on influences or were you stepping away from being derivative?

Rockstroh: That’s a great question. My wife was pregnant last year, and I knew I had a deadline. There was this new baby coming, so last summer, 2016, I hammered this thing out. It was usually when I put our daughter to bed and my wife was in bed, and I would work in the basement until like 4 a.m., in the darkness, just with me.

So much of it was written in the solitude of my own basement that with a lot of my ideas I was afraid for, “What is this? Are people going to get it?” Then I had 10 different editors. My first draft was finished in the fall, and there were 10 people I trusted. Those consisted of published writers, musical theater directors, a couple contacts in New York City, actors, pit people – all different perspectives. They all gave me a ton of feedback.

From that feedback, I inflated characters, deflated characters, I went in different directions, two scenes got switched around, I eliminated songs, added songs. At first, I just wanted to go where my artistic part of my brain wanted to go as I was writing it. As I got influence from other people, it was really valuable to hear how it’s actually coming across to others. So I took all their advice to heart and made most of the changes that they suggested.

Q. Have you set a drop dead date – no more changes?

Rockstroh: I haven’t yet. I submitted it to the United States Copyright Office already, and even they were saying it’s okay if this isn’t the exact final wording of everything. So I submitted it this summer, and things have changed since then.

I think there will be things even in dress rehearsal where I’m like, “You know, that’s not playing the way it needs to play. Let’s still modify it.” But the changes get more and more finite. We can’t be changing large things late in the process. They’re just going to be subtle little details that still can improve.

One of the big things of Brian Sutton was, “You’ve got to be open to change. This thing is a journey, and everyone wants their stake in telling you how to change it. And sometimes they’re telling you conflicting ideas.”

Q. What does the New York Musical Theatre Festival want?

Rockstroh: They require a submission of the script and at least 75 percent of the audio from the show (by Nov. 1). And there’s a synopsis page. There’s a packet of five or so things. You’ve got to take your name off of everything; they want to be very unbiased. Brian Sutton told me there are between 300 and 500 submissions per year. The top 10 are the ones that get staged in New York.

Q. The creation is a solitary thing. Now it’s like having a baseball stadium out there with different takes on what to do. How do you prepare yourself mentally for that because “This is my baby – oh here, take a whack at it”?

Rockstroh: Another composer once used that analogy. He said, “It’s yours, and then you’ve got to all of a sudden share it with the world and say, ‘Everybody judge my baby’ – and yet it’s your child.” The way I think of the show is very much like that. When it succeeds – like this summer when the students started singing songs during breaks and they started attaching to the story – it wasn’t self-pride I felt, it was pride for it as if it were my child. Like I want it to succeed on its own separate from me.

So if you think of it like a child – to have the world out there judging your child, critiquing your child – is definitely a hard thing as somebody who loves that child and raised it, essentially. When people were critiquing the show, I never took any of that personally because it wasn’t like, “You’re critiquing me,” but it was hard for the show, I felt, to handle all that. In a sense, I expected it, and I knew it was important. So that’s why I asked for all the feedback from people.

It’s just like Brian Sutton did in New York City. At his opening performance, he had surveys. Our programs are going to have surveys of people for them to either text in or write on sheets. I do want people’s opinions.

Q. The piece will be premiered with a high school cast. But it’s not written for high school-age characters. They’re all over in age.

Rockstroh: I can certainly see other high schools producing this. You certainly would need an administration and community that are open minded. I mean, it’s real theater. We’re going to get to see people die on stage and get to see hearts be broken and hearts fall in love. It’s raw stuff, and I think some communities are just more open to that than others. We’re fortunate enough to live in a community, I think, that supports that.

Q. You’re also presenting “Les Miserables.” Is that making a statement in itself for Southwest?

Rockstroh: Well, it’s a show we’ve never done here, and, as you know, it’s an epic musical. We want to really celebrate all our years of doing various musicals, and there are few musicals out there that are as epic and difficult as that show.

By doing a 50th-anniversary celebration, not only do we want the challenge of doing two shows, we want to be able to take on a show that’s never been done by our school and a show that really in many ways defines what musical theater can be. And to me “Les Miz” is everything that’s great about musical theater.

Q. As if “Les Miz” isn’t difficult enough, you’re adding your own original show. What are you finding is more difficult?

Rockstroh: They are different challenges. They are different time periods. One is already written, one isn’t. But in a way they’re similar productions because they are both stories of revolutions – everyone rising up for a certain cause. The chorus is important in both shows. It helps to advance the story line. Both shows have loss in it. Both shows have love. In many ways, they’re similar. But with “Les Miz,” the musical difficulty and demands acting-wise are definitely going to be a challenge.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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