Mikayla Assmus gives instructions to the cast during their Act 2 run-through before Spring Break.
Mikayla Assmus gives instructions to the cast during their Act 2 run-through before Spring Break.
Aislyn McDonald

The Makings of a Musical: Casting “Into The Woods”

It is December 13 and you are waiting in the hallway surrounded by other students going over their songs and monologues as the minutes tick down. Suddenly, your name is called and you enter a dark room, the directors’ faces shadowed as the lights shine on you. Your heart is racing but you perform your heart out, hoping you get cast.

This was the reality for many of Fossil’s theater kids auditioning for “Into The Woods” before Winter Break.

“I go into a very scary dark room, the light shining down on me and the directors in the back in pitch black so you can’t see them and you perform a song that usually takes a minute and a monologue that’s about 30 seconds,” Jonah Bryant, who got cast as the Baker, describes his audition experience.

Callbacks were the same day and students performed songs from the musical itself for the characters they were called back for. 

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“We were all kind of scrambling,” says Aderyn Ketchum, who plays Cinderella. “We had about 10 minutes between the callback list posted and the actual callbacks which is crazy.”

Mikayla Assmus, the director, Briana McCormick, the music director, and John Garner, the tech crew director, watched all the auditioners closely to cast the musical.

“I was looking at very strong actors and obviously very strong vocalists… [because] just in terms of the music, [the musical] is so hard,” Assmus says.

Cinderella’s Prince (Cooper Hand) deals with his emotions while singing “Agony (Reprise)”. (Aislyn McDonald)

After the cast list was posted, the same night as auditions, the cast immediately got to work. Assmus had them fill out Uta Hagen’s 9 questions to help explore their character’s wants and needs. This allowed for student creativity in portraying their characters.

“Being able to use student input and student ideas… makes the shows a little bit stronger, and it makes them care a little bit more about it because it’s their ideas,” Assmus says.  “I just loved Jill [Ivory]’s idea for… the Narrator. She called him Twig and he’s just a creature of the forest and [has] seen the story told over and over again and knows how it ends and all these things… that’s not something I would have thought up.”

After starting the process to get to know their characters, the cast started the most challenging part of “Into The Woods”: the music. Both vocally and instrumentally, the complexly metered music makes up a majority of the show. The cast started learning over Winter Break and spent January singing through the songs with each other under McCormick, who is also the pit orchestra conductor for the musical.

“The material and the music is so challenging, it’s a very advanced level of music… We needed help from [McCormick], trying to figure out what everything sounds like,” Ketchum says.

Assmus constantly emphasizes student input, as shown through her decision on how to rehearse the musical.

“So I asked the cast like ‘Hey, would you rather block the show in order from beginning to end or do similar numbers [first]? …And they’re like, no, we want to do it in order,” Assmus says.

With vocals taking up all of January because of how demanding and similar the songs can be, the over 200-page script was blocked in just a few weeks. Compared to full-time Broadway shows taking four to six weeks, even discounting choreography and music time, the “Into The Woods” cast completed an incredible feat.

(From right to left) Maddie Evans, Noah Nguyen, Aderyn Ketchum, and Jonah Bryant take direction from Assmus for a scene in Act 2. (Claire Kizer)

“We went through several weeks of vocals right into blocking… and it only took, I think, less than two weeks to do the entire show, and it’s a two-and-a-half-hour show,” Ketchum explains the astonishing number.

Depending on which scene is being blocked, only certain cast members will be required at rehearsal. To start rehearsal, Assmus asks a question of the day while everyone eats their snacks.

“[For] ‘Into The Woods’, [rehearsals have] a lot smaller groupings, so I just do a vibe check every day, honestly,” Assmus laughs. “Depending on, ‘Hey, do we need to do a warm up?’ …we either get straight into it or they do meditation or they do character walks.”

The time before rehearsal starts is important for a lot of the cast to get into the rehearsal mindset.

“I get to see all my friends and then just laugh for a little bit for the first 10 minutes before rehearsal starts,” says Bryant. “And as soon as I’m in just a fun, silly mood, I’m able to be able to start performing because… I can pretty much pull myself into character.”

Depending on the scene, rehearsals can take 90 minutes or up to three and a half hours. The cast is expected to come to rehearsal ready to perform.

The cast comes up with their unique “Into The Woods” chant to get them hyped up for their performances.
(Aislyn McDonald)

“On their own, they have to learn their lines, but also do some character research and decide how they want to portray the character,” Assmus says.

Assmus believes the cast know their characters better than she does, so while she offers guidance, she leaves the acting up to the students.

“[Assumus] doesn’t really tell us how to be our characters, which is my favorite thing ever,” says Jill Ivory, the aforementioned Narrator.

With “Into The Woods” being Assmus’ fourth Fossil musical as director, she knows the drill when starting to put together the show.

“A lot of the collaboration happens with the leads and the directors, so myself and then Mr. Garner, McCormick, and Rebecca [Spafford], who’s our costumer, we all come together and create a vision,” Assmus says. “We take those ideas to our student designers and they start coming up with ideas of how to do it.”

Every part of “Into The Woods” has to communicate with each other to ensure the musical makes sense.

“I have to know what the set looks like to be able to block [the cast]… and then set props and all the different crews come together, figure out ‘Okay, how does this work with what we’re all working on?’ They bring those ideas to me, so I’m aware of them and then we actually have them all come together.”

Even with all this, Assmus initially struggled to find a way to make Fossil’s “Into The Woods” unique due to the popularity of the musical and the specific stage instructions important to the plot. However, with everyone collaborating, they have produced a product they are very proud of.

“I think a lot of our originality and ‘Fossil sparkle’, so to speak, comes with our set being completely student designed. It’s not looking like a typical forest… one of our major trees is made out of book pages,” says Assmus.

Cinderella, the Steward (Will Gutridge), and the Baker try to make sense of a sudden event in Act 2. (Aislyn McDonald)

With the set being installed after spring break, the cast finds it easier to perform.

“When I either walk on stage or I walk into the middle of the Black Box and I’m the only one standing there, my mind clicks and it’s not like ‘Oh I’m just hanging out with friends’, especially now that there’s the start of a set; I step on stage and I’m Cinderella,” Ketchum says.

With opening night less than a week away, everyone is excited to show the Fossil community what they have been putting together.

“It’s gonna be a great show and everyone is working… so hard, tech especially. No one has a small part,” Ketchum says.

Get tickets to “Into The Woods” on April 4, 5, and 6 at frhs.booktix.com, students and seniors cost $12 and adults cost $15.

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