Actions speak louder than words: Casting and reading through “tick … tick … BOOM!”

This blog has deviated significantly from its original purpose as a showcase for my data visualisation work. I apologise if this content is unexpected and uninteresting, but many things in life are too extraordinary not to write about, and I didn’t know where else to write. :)

Since the moment we were introduced sixteen years ago, music has never left me. Having jumped between various genres from Chinese to Western classical to pop and folk, I identified musical theatre just before graduating high school as the most emotive of these, the most obviously relevant, and the most essentially collaborative. Since then, I have taken on multiple supporting roles in this space, first as a band member, then as a rehearsal accompanist, and finally, in my great fortune this term, as a musical director. After a two-year hiatus and as I start a new show with strangers who I now treasure, these articles will form my attempt to document my learning process during one of the most exhilarating and terrifying times of my university life.

This week marks the beginning of the rehearsal period for UCL Musical Theatre Society’s Term 3 production of “tick … tick … BOOM!”, a show that was written by “RENT” creator Jonathan Larson to tell the story of a struggling musical theatre composer much like himself on the verge of leaving his art for a corporate career. Popular interest in the musical was driven by its 2021 film adaptation, directed by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manual Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield (of “Superman” fame) opposite Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, and Joshua Henry. I, on the other hand, first heard about it through some university peers who sent me a Facebook friend request and asked me to become the musical director of their production.

I haven’t played the piano for a public performance in more than two years, and my musical theatre acumen is barely intact. I don’t know how to conduct, much less how to do so while playing, and take no pride in my singing voice or ability to coach vocalists. I wondered why they had asked me to join them and mulled over the decision for far too long before I randomly searched for the musical online and became absorbed by its wit, bravery, and powerful message of hope. Because of my team’s trust and support, I am here today and excited to tell you about the first days of our production.

Casting

Our journey began with recruiting nine members of our production team, including directors, producers, and musicians. This was enough of a challenge, with the process already more selective than my university entrance place. With this team in place by April, however, we began looking for five actors to bring “tick … tick … BOOM!” to life on stage.

Our society’s casting process comes in two stages: one in which auditionees present a song of their choice and a monologue for initial consideration and a second in which the most promising candidates perform scenes and songs from our musical to a panel in person. Actors of all experience levels tried out, from those who had never performed in a musical capacity to those who had done too many shows to count. As each candidate showed up before our panel, the bar was raised higher, even when I thought that was no longer possible. After we made the difficult decision to “call back” a handful of applicants at 2:30 am on the last day of our first audition round, the true thrill began for me.

Your friend, the accompanist

For the second round of auditions, potential cast members had to sing an excerpt from “tick … tick … BOOM!” with piano accompaniment. Given that they had less than 36 hours to prepare, our panel was lenient with our requirements; actors could take some time to familiarise themselves with the music and access the lyrics while singing.

In all audition settings, but especially high-stress ones like ours, I consider my role as an accompanist to be the bridge between the actor and the panel. I am fully present in discussions around who to cast and will make heartwrenching decisions to turn down talented performers, but when actors are in the room beside me, I am on their side. When I was in high school, this meant saying little words of reassurance to the auditionees who I often knew personally (our performing arts community was tight-knit and our school was tiny). For this production, though I knew very few of the actors trying out, it involved adjusting my playing to fit any wonky rhythms, emphasising the notes of the melody if they forgot the right ones, and preparing them for runs by moving through their vocal warmups.

Through my years of accompanying singers and instrumentalists, I’ve developed an inside joke where I refer to myself as “the piano” with others in rehearsal settings. This time around, I felt like so much more than my instrument; I felt constantly alive and responsive and moved by every acting choice made by our potential cast. This was also an exceptionally courteous group of auditionees, a group that thanked me after every run more often than not and who were quicker to admit their own mistakes than to notice mine. I was proud to give this part of myself for a few minutes to even those who ultimately did not join our production.

Actions speak louder than words . — Jon in “tick … tick … BOOM!”’s final song

Week 1: Time for read-through!

After announcing our cast, made up of diverse performers with a range of experience levels, we scheduled our rehearsals for the month. The first action point was to gather our entire team for a read-through of the show’s script, which proved that our actors were even more talented than we originally believed. Their delivery of the show’s most moving monologues and exchanges brought a lump to my throat and tears to the eyes of our production team, levels of emotion rarely seen in read-throughs. It remains difficult for me to believe that these actors are pursuing their craft as a hobby, a side interest even, and that they are simultaneously juggling exams and essays on altogether distinct topics.

What’s next?

In addition to being the first week of “tick … tick … BOOM!” rehearsals, this week has also marked the end of my undergraduate degree. I’ve been furiously editing my dissertation with the help of friends and family, and after submitting my work yesterday, time has been sludge-like. I feel both unoccupied and constantly busy, possibly because my musical directing work in these initial stages involves sending and responding to endless Facebook messages while holed up in my flat. It’s tricky to find direction when there’s no more academic work to do for months, so this freedom is two-edged.

In the meantime, I’ll devote my energy to this production and to my part-time role at Flourish, where I continue to be inspired by my colleagues and produce data stories for social media and the web. The work never ends; it only changes tack. Actions speak louder than words.

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she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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Yaning Wu

Yaning Wu

she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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