Student-written musical explores idealism, hope

Many people try to find love by looking around, but some decide to look up.

“The Skylight Room,” a one-act musical adaptation of O. Henry’s 1906 short story, was performed last Friday and Saturday in the Morse-Stiles Crescent Theater. Dan Rubins ’16 wrote the script, lyrics and music for the show — a concerted effort unusual for student theater productions. Michael Protacio ’14, an actor in the show, said he does not know of a Yale performance for which the same student created all components.

Set in a New York City boarding house, the piece centers on a girl named Elsie who thinks she has fallen in love with a star and her struggle to guard this belief against a world full of hardship and skepticism. Rubins highlighted idealism and hope as the production’s central themes.

“The basic core of the story is the concept of holding on to a hope against all odds,” Rubins said. “Elsie becomes devoted to the idea that she has found love in this star in the sky, even though everyone around her mocks that idea.”

Miranda Rizzolo ’15, the director of the production, explained that Elsie is a typist who earns little money and lives in a small room that contains nothing of value, adding that she has no close friends or loved ones. Elsie’s dull surroundings force her to look up at the sky, which eventually leads her to begin admiring the beauty of the stars and fall in love with one, she added. The idealistic storyline, Rizzolo said, is comparable to a fairy tale and is not meant to emulate reality, noting that its main purpose is to remind the audience to find beauty in everyday life, even when it appears there is none. Rebecca Brudner ’16, who plays Elsie, added that the show emphasizes the value of idealism in a world that increasingly discourages it.

“[The piece] condones the idea of soulmates and true love — our current culture really pushes away from those ideas, especially in people our age,” Brudner said. “People don’t think that way anymore but it’s still a beautiful idea that people can strive for.”

The set featured various projections of celestial bodies to represent the fantastical element of the story, Rizzolo said, adding that because the story centers on stars, these images encompassed not only the stage, but the entire theater. Eli Block ’16, the show’s producer, and Rizzolo both noted that these effects allowed the audience to see the world from Elsie’s perspective. The set design did not aim to rigidly separate the real from the imaginary, Rizzolo and Brudner explained, but rather blurred the boundary between the two worlds. Rizzolo said that Elsie’s firm belief in the world she has created for herself altered the way she interacts with the real world, leading to a merging of these realms on stage. Brudner noted that while the set featured decorated floors and props to distinguish between the boarding house and the fantasy world, it did not contain any walls to separate the two. This set-up allowed characters to easily travel between the two worlds, she added.

Rubins said he chose to adapt the original short story into a musical because he thinks that only the musical form can effectively depict such a highly emotional plot. There are sudden changes in the characters’ moods that would not make sense if these scenes were staged purely though spoken dialogue, he said, giving the example of a scene in which Elsie begins by expressing dismay over her living conditions but then segues into an optimistic song about finding true love. Block noted that the fundamental challenge of musicals is the transition between spoken dialogue and song, which he said needs to be convincing. The amount of emotion in “The Skylight Room” makes these transitions seem natural, he added.

“The characters must be so committed emotionally to what they are saying that you can actually envision them breaking out into song,” Block said.

Michael Protacio ’14, who played a physician in the show, noted that he thinks a college audience can relate particularly well to the characters because they face similar struggles in their daily lives. Protacio compared Elsie’s profession as a typist to Yale students who type tirelessly at their computers. He noted that on top of her professional obligations, Elsie also devotes time to her romantic life, a juggling act to which college students in general can relate. Block noted that the way in which the characters sing about love accurately reflects how romantic relationships begin and end in real life, adding that he has witnessed real-life relationships that have progressed similarly to the way romantic relationships are described in the songs. Brudner said that students often perceive an exam, a paper, or a grade in a class as the determining factor for the rest of their lives, adding that Elsie’s story depicts long-term relationships and friendships as much more important.

“There is more to hang on to in life than the struggle of the present,” she said.

The final performance of “The Skylight Room” was held on Nov. 9.

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