Footlighters return with “Merrily We Roll Along” following two-year absence

Scout Carter, Staff Writer

On Saturday, Nov. 6, I could feel the energy emanating out of the Thwing Ballroom from the adjacent hallway. The room was buzzing with excitement for the upcoming rendition of “Merrily We Roll Along,” performed by Case Western Reserve University’s own Footlighters. As I peered in, I could see excited parents arriving from far away, friends thrilled to be supporting their peers, pit orchestra members warming up their instruments, cast members making their way backstage and some theatergoers like me who just wanted to immerse themselves in a live performance for the first time since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon, the lights began flickering, a cue that the show was going to start. As the overture started playing and the curtains drew, musical vibrations took over the floor, feeding directly into the energetic mood. Then, the actors emerged from the wings and the music grew to fill the room, and I was taken over by a great feeling of joy. As a lover of theater, I’ve been living without live performances for so long.This musical was the perfect reintroduction to the stage world. 

“Merrily We Roll Along” isn’t a common musical for a college theater group to put on. The show, written by the great Stephen Sondheim, follows the lives of three friends with a twist—it proceeds in reverse chronological order. It’s one of the musician’s least known and performed shows. When I sat down with “Merrily” director Milo Cassarino, he explained why he chose this show despite its reputation.

“I think it’s a story that can really relate to people our age … It’s all about life and the decisions we make, and I think that’s a really important and powerful message for us now,” Cassarino said.

But how does a director put together a story that throws typical narrative structure to the wind? 

“We wanted the audience to understand what was happening, meaning the actors needed to understand what was happening … We did all of our rehearsals chronologically … so that the story unfolded in order for the actors,” Cassarino remarked. “I think that really helped because when all the pieces came together there were a lot of moments where even I and the actors were like, ‘Oh, that makes sense now.’”

This is the first live production that the group has put on in two years. Theater in the pandemic hasn’t been easy, and after going home in March 2020, the Footlighters needed to find creative ways to continue performing.

“We had a cabaret performance about a year ago, and that was live on Zoom. And last semester, Shaun [Furter], who played Frank in the main cast … actually directed the show, which we recorded,” Cassarino explained. “Everybody learned all their parts at home, we did Zoom rehearsals … then we had one day of recording where we were outside and six feet apart from everybody.”

Cassarino emphasized the fact that this musical was especially unique in the group’s history, telling me that they had one of their largest turnouts for auditions, allowing for an understudy cast in case of an emergency quarantine. 

“We were worried after two years of people not being involved in the club, half the school hasn’t heard of the club or ever seen a show the club has done before. We were worried we wouldn’t get enough people to have a strong understudy cast, but we had so many people that it was difficult to cut it down,” Cassarino said. 

The cast pushed through an uncertain process, with the realisation of a live performance actually happening often uncertain. To ensure that the show would indeed go on, the production team took extra precautions for the cast’s safety. The entire team had to take extra COVID-19 tests and as opening night approached, rehearsals were separated into three groups to reduce exposure. These measures paid off, because on opening night the cast learned that they would be able to perform without their masks. 

“We made an announcement to everybody on stage at the same time, and there was a big cheer … I think for us that was kind of a defining moment on how things are starting to get back to normal,” Cassarino said. 

This allowed the audience to truly see the hard work the actors were doing in their entire facial expressions, and gave hope for future productions to be put on in a more pre-pandemic fashion. 

The performance was electrifying. It was incredibly clear how much work had been put into the show. I left feeling excited for the prospects of the group, especially now that everyone was back on campus and ready to perform again. 

When speaking on the future for the Footlighters, Cassarino said, “At one of our upcoming meetings we’re going to be deciding on the show we’re going to be doing next semester … I would encourage anybody who is interested in getting involved at all to come out and join … We have always had opportunities available for everyone who wants to do tech, or work in the pit or work backstage.”

With the show having just closed, Cassarino also reflected on the hard work of his team. 

“One of the major things about this process that I think was so unique was that really everybody did stuff that was way beyond their job title,” he said. “Everybody put so much time and so much energy into this, and I think everybody who did that deserves an incredible amount of praise.”

Theater is coming back to campus in full swing and can be found in more corners than just the Thwing Ballroom. This past weekend and this upcoming weekend, “Arcadia ” will be performed in the recently expanded Maltz Performing Arts Center, featuring both current students and even some alumni. The Players’ Theatre Group will be putting on both “Rabbit Hole,” the Pulitzer Prize winning drama by David Lindsay-Abaire and “Neofuturism VI”, a play festival touting “30 plays. 60 minutes.” on the weekend of Dec. 3. The Doc Opera fundraiser for the School of Medicine will take place on Dec. 11, which is written, directed and performed by the school’s health professional program students to raise money for the Student Run Health Clinic. Whatever you’re in the mood for, the theater groups at CWRU are finally back, so don’t forget to get out and see a show!