“I DO NOT THINK there are many musicals out there with aliens, show choirs, and teenage scientists — all taking place at Area 51,” said Jacob Sweet, a senior at Salina South High School.

This February, not only did Sweet and his Thespian Troupe 1476 perform such a musical — called Dreamland, Or a Musical Riff on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Set During the Declassification of Area 51 — they also premiered the first full production of the show, created by professional songwriting duo Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller, co-creators of Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting.

Jacob Sweet as Eliot in Dreamland. Photo by Erin Hughes.

The musical was commissioned as part of the Educational Theatre Association’s Next Generation Works program, sponsored by Concord Theatricals, and workshopped at the 2019 International Thespian Festival, where Whitney Turner, also a Salina senior, saw its first staged reading. “Being able to see this show from the very beginning, workshop it, then perform it for crowds was very rewarding,” said Turner. “Since we were the first to put it on, this show gave us all a chance to analyze the script and develop our own characters, as well as costumes” and other design elements.

For the musical’s librettist and lyricist Tysen, this premiere was “a golden opportunity and a real dream come true.” Before writing for Broadway shows, Tysen was a Thespian in Troupe 1476 and a proud member of the school’s show choir, New Dawn, which he and composer and co-writer Miller immortalized in Dreamland — complete with rhinestone-encrusted jackets and a multitalented student composer named Scott, named after Tysen’s “good buddy who sang tenor with me in show choir … and always got the roles I wanted because he was a million times more talented. …

“I LOVED show choir!” said Tysen. “Unfortunately, New Dawn did not then have rhinestone jackets, but thanks to our show, they do now! I remember every year singing show tunes on a wobbly flatbed semitrailer truck for a celebration called Salina Days, convinced one of us would jazz square or pas de bourrée right off the front.”

Tysen refers to Salina as his first and enduring “artistic home.” The Thespian alum loves giving back to the community that has supported him throughout his career. Dreamland marks his fourth show directed by Salina Theatre Director Kate Lindsay (also director of Troupe 1476 since before Tysen was a student) and the first world premiere. “I knew she would be very respectful with our baby, direct the heck out of it, and assemble a crack team of designers.”

Lindsay received a call from Tysen soon after he and Miller were commissioned to write for the Next Generation Works program. “He wanted to know what high school theatre teachers looked for in musicals and what students were interested in.” She lists among the show’s selling points “the contemporary time period, the songs, and the Midsummer storyline.” 

Sweet agrees. “Dreamland is one of the most ridiculous, entertaining, and hilarious musicals I have ever been part of. Since Dreamland is a spinoff of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was really exciting to make a well-known story our own. Another super intriguing part of Dreamland is its variety of musical numbers. There are slow, intense solo numbers; big, flashy group dances; even a rap duet.”

Sweet played Eliot, a high school honor student at the show’s fictional Las Vegas Prep School who is obsessed with meteorology and gets pulled into a Midsummer-esque love triangle. “My favorite part about playing Eliot is the multitude of expressions. In one number, I sing out about my passion for all things weather while tying up a weather balloon. In another, I become a goofy, magic-induced, lovesick boy, willing to do anything for his newfound crush. After that, I become a backup dancer/singer and hype man for my friend who starts rapping.”

Turner, meanwhile, played Rebecca Wilson, a sassy honor student, the only licensed student pilot at Las Vegas Prep School, and, according to the actor, “definitely the most dramatic of the four student scientists. I had fun putting my own Regina George/Sharpay Evans twist on the character and making her a character everyone loves to hate.” Used to more “standard protagonist roles … this role stretched me as an actor to go outside of my boundaries and try new things,” she said.

Tysen explained that, for the characters, he and Miller also took inspiration from the real Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, home of Thespian Troupe 5273, which brought the pair in years ago to write a musical adaptation of Midsummer called Dream. Although that show was “very, very different from Dreamland,” he said, “we wanted to give a small shoutout to those amazing artists and that experience.”

For Lindsay and her students, being the first program to stage a full production of Dreamland was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While usually we would look at other productions of a show for inspiration, we were not able to do this.” And for a show like this one, described in the authors’ notes as a “fast-paced musical, B-movie sendup of Midsummer, silly and a little outrageous,” that was a tall order. “There’s a ton of possible ways to interpret aspects of this show, especially the aliens. Our design staff and our cast had an absolute blast working on that.”

Sweet and his fellow Thespians also played a part in developing the show’s aesthetic, “ranging from the creative makeup design of the aliens, the look of the set, and the implementation of 3D glasses used for 3D projections in the background. It is thrilling to think that, in the future, other schools might look at the ideas we came up with for inspiration,” he said.

Tysen and Miller were also tweaking the tunes as they rehearsed, which lent a workshop feel to much of the preproduction, especially the week they worked with the students on-site. “Watching these fantastically talented and down-to-earth guys work with my students was just a dream come true,” said Lindsay.

Turner, who plans to pursue a degree in musical theatre after high school, said the experience “helped prepare me for what I want to do for the rest of my life. Seeing them watch a run-through, give us a ton of notes, then tell us to do it all again and apply what they said pushed us all to be the best we can be.”

During the rap number, in which the character Randy (played by Thespian junior Nathan Streeter) breaks up with Rebecca, Tysen asked the four leading cast members to choreograph a hip-hop dance, supplementing the work of the troupe’s professional choreographer Samantha DeChant, also an alum of Troupe 1476.

Sweet, who had worked with Tysen and Miller previously in a local production of Tuck Everlasting, loved the chance to “see the interactions and minds of those who wrote our school musical” at work, adding that the two treated the students as professionals. “They asked us for feedback and for help making sure there were no holes in the plot.”

“Not many people can say they got to do a new musical in high school,” said Turner.

As a bonus, before Tysen and Miller departed and about two weeks before the musical premiere, they and the students hosted “a Q&A/mini-performance of Miller and Tysen’s song catalog called ‘Dreamland and Dessert.’” Lindsay referred to the event as an informal meet-and-greet featuring desserts, coffee and tea, and student performances of songs from Tuck Everlasting, Dreamland, and Miller and Tysen’s song cycle, Fugitive Songs. “I was lucky enough to sing a song with Chris at the piano,” said Turner. “At the end of their stay, we had all definitely grown as performers with their help.”

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Catch Your Next Show at Home

    Catch Your Next Show at Home

    How to stream popular plays and musicals

    Apr 08, 2020

    Final Main Stage Shows Selected for ITF 2020

    Final Main Stage Shows Selected for ITF 2020

    Eleven shows earned this honor

    Apr 07, 2020

    What <em>Star Wars</em> Teaches About Musical Theatre

    What Star Wars Teaches About Musical Theatre

    The five journeys of story structure

    Apr 13, 2020