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MIT makes Star Wars sing

Star Wars: Musical Edition
The MIT Musical Theatre Guild’s production opens on Friday, January 31 and runs through February 8 in the Sala de Puerto Rico, on the second floor of the MIT Student Center, 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Tickets are $10; call (617) 253-6294, or visit www.mit.edu/~mtg

We’re in the basement below MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, and Rogue Shindler is coaching Darth Vader in the art of menace. "You will loom more if you’re standing straight up," he says, and Darth, an MIT sophomore named Rob Speer, straightens up. Speer has long straight hair and glasses, and he’s wearing eight-buckle platform boots to make him look taller, and he seems to blush easily. He’s looming, sort of, over a Princess Leia named Amy Schonsheck, an MIT senior who’s wearing a T-shirt that reads, "And God said [insert long, laborious mathematical equation here] and there was light." The scene is the one in which Darth introduces Leia to a bat-like interrogation robot. There’s no robot as yet; eventually, Shindler says, a Stormtrooper may carry one in on a string hanging from a stick. "And now you’re worried," Shindler says to Leia, "because, what could be worse than him?"

Soon after, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo saunter in, shivering. Luke, an MIT grad student named Todd Radford, has floppy light hair and a flannel shirt; he looks as if he’d just come from the line for Phish tickets. Jamez Kirtley, a tall, dark-haired, wisecracking MIT alum, needs no introduction: a natural Han. A slight, pretty MIT sophomore named Eleanor Pritchard is easily identifiable as C-3PO, if only because she’s the one sentenced to carry around R2-D2 — in this case, a two-foot-high limited-edition R2-D2 beverage cooler — by its handle. They run through the scene in which the rebels infiltrate the Death Star and R2-D2 discovers that Leia is being held in a detention cell. The dialogue is familiar — "What princess?", Han bellows — right up until the moment they burst into song. The tune? A number called "Pretty Little Princess," to the tune of "Pretty Little Picture," from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Welcome to Star Wars: Musical Edition, the kind of entertainment that could happen only at MIT. Opening next Friday, it’s a production of the student-run, community-based MIT Musical Theatre Guild, which puts on four shows a year. (The next production is a little more down to earth: a timely revisitation of Chicago.) The brainchild of Shindler and co-writer Jeff Suess, Star Wars: Musical Edition is a musical satire pitting George Lucas’s finest hour against the best of Broadway.

How did this happen? "It was an accident," says Shindler, a second-generation fan who grew up watching the films on video. "My friend Jeff and I are big fans of song parody, and we’ve been amateurs at that for years. We’d come up with jokes about song concepts that would be funny. Some of them were born out of the titles, like, ‘Don’t Cry for Me Princess Leia.’ One of us would crack a joke, and the other would say, ‘Oh yeah? Well, I’ll write the whole thing.’ "

Once, the two were performing in a men’s choir where South Pacific’s "There Is Nothing like a Dame" was in the repertoire, and they began fooling with the idea of having the faceless Stormtroopers sing a parody called "There Is Nothing like a Name." "We were thinking about how the Stormtroopers always make that ‘clack-clack-clack’ sound, and how we could turn that into a tap dance. And when we said that, half the people standing near us turned around and said, ‘Did you just say tap-dancing Stormtroopers?’" An idea was born.

After several years of fooling around, the two found they had almost enough material to stage the entire trilogy. "I think the toughest song was the battle of Hoth," Shindler says. "We had previous songs with Han and Leia and the ghost of Ben, but we had nothing from mid Hoth to Cloud City, and we knew we needed something for the big epic battle. Eventually, I was listening to Miss Saigon, and there’s a battle-sequence flashback in the second act that had the same feeling."

Alas, technical and logistical requirements forced the pair to scale back and produce only the first film — episode IV to fans — at MIT. The songs "are satires of Star Wars and of the original Broadway songs," Shindler explains, "but they’re not all funny. Like, with ‘Don’t Cry for Me Princess Leia,’ you hear the chorus and you start to laugh. But then, by the end, people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s so sad.’ The biggest challenge was maintaining that balance between its being funny and keeping a certain degree of poignance."

Issue Date: January 23 - 30, 2003

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