WILLMAR — Putting on a musical with more than 60 high school students is a major challenge under normal circumstances. Toss in a pandemic and there’s an entirely different set of hurdles.

Fortunately, the directors, students and volunteers at Willmar Senior High School stepped up to meet those challenges to bring the classic musical “Anastasia” to audiences in a virtual performance that will be available April 30 to May 2.

Tickets are required to obtain a link for the virtual show, which is being distributed by a company in New York.

“It’s been amazing. It’s been an adventure,” said Neal Haugen, choral instructor at the school and musical director for the show. “We’re forging new ground doing this.”

Pandemic production

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In 2020 Willmar school officials canceled their spring and fall musicals because of COVID-19. Faced with the threat that could happen again this year after investing hours in rehearsals, school administrators decided early on that Anastasia would be presented virtually. Instead of audiences seated in the theater to watch the musical, they would be in their own homes watching on their TVs or computers.

But this is no ordinary video recording of students on a stage.

The process involved creating a soundtrack for the virtual show with soloists, members of the chorus and instrumentalists in the pit orchestra all being recorded individually in separate rooms over many days in order to meet COVID safety guidelines.

Then, all those tracks were layered and mixed to create the finished soundtrack. Haugen said the mastermind behind the musical recording wizardry was Terry Brau, former music teacher at Willmar.

“He put in tons of hours,” said Haugen.

After practicing on stage with face masks for weeks to meet COVID safety standards, the student actors were able to remove the masks when they went on stage last Friday and Saturday to record the performance.

Actors are allowed to go without masks during a performance under the current guidelines, said Haugen.

While on stage the actors sang along with the soundtrack, as three cameras filmed their actions, their dialogue and their emotions.

Haugen said the film editors took the “best of the best” of the live stage performances to create a seamless recorded show with different angles that was then mixed with the recorded soundtrack.

It’s not unlike the process used to create the wildly popular “Hamilton” musical that’s available on a TV streaming service.

Because the students know the music so well, Haugen said it’s impossible to tell that the music isn’t live.

Being on Broadway

For Rachel Lanning, the high school senior who plays the lead role of Anya, the entire musical experience — from recording her solos at school with “a bunch of tech everywhere” and being filmed while on stage — was awe-inspiring.

“It felt like I was on Broadway recording for a big show,” she said. “It was so, so cool.”

But she acknowledged it wasn’t all “puppies and rainbows.”

Concerns with COVID hung like a cloud over every aspect of the musical, which prompted her and the other seniors in the production to take leadership roles to ensure that the cast followed rules about wearing masks and social distancing to make sure the production would happen.

“We had no other option other than to rise to the challenge,” said Lanning. “It is literally our time to shine, during a pandemic.”

Doing a virtual show was more work — and was more expensive than doing a live performance, said Haugen, who praised the administration for its support of the project. He said the show required additional time from numerous directors, staff, students and volunteers. He said Brau’s involvement with the soundtrack was a crucial component.

Lanning estimates she spent at least 40 hours over a two-week period just recording her songs for the soundtrack. She said working with Brau in the recording studio was “one of the coolest things” she’s done this year. “I poured my heart and soul into it,” she said.

If it weren’t for technology and having a school and people that “cared so much” about music, Lanning said this “insanely quality show” would not have happened. “It brings me to tears,” she said.

With families of students spread around the country, Haugen said having a virtual show allows people to watch the musical wherever they are.

Lanning, who spent last summer doing virtual classes with two Broadway performers, said those two women will be watching this weekend. She also hopes college and professional music and theater directors will also watch the show and use it as a way to scout out professional talent.

With the recording completed and families and friends making plans to watch the virtual show, Lanning said it feels good to know that “all this work has paid off.”

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