Students perform “Word Nerd” musical
The musical was staged at the Theater and Performance Studies Black Box.
This week, students performed the musical “Word Nerd” at the Theater and Performance Studies Black Box.
The musical is the result of four students’ senior theses — three of them within the Theater and Performance Studies department. The show features a crossword-themed television game show broadcast from California called “Word Nerd,” where contestants have been solving crossword puzzles head-to-head for 10 years. The four students each maintained a unique area of focus when putting together the show — Will Wegner’s ’23 thesis was in lyric and book writing, Simon Rabinowitz’s ’22 in creative producing and writing, Bibiana Torres’s ’22 in directing and Griffin Strout’s ’22 in orchestration.
“There is something really exciting about coming out with a good production after everything that we get busy with at Yale,” Wegner said. “As I continue to pursue this career professionally, I now know that I need to think to myself to find ways for saving little segments of time to have something extremely valuable, productive and creatively rewarding.”
The show’s protagonist, Bob Otto, is the word-obsessed host of “Word Nerd” who cares almost too much about the show and its contestants. Bob is content in his current role, but his manager Brenda believes that he could make more money in the television world.
Crenshaw, the show’s executive producer, tries to convince Bob to invite contestants who are less “square” than they traditionally have been. In Crenshaw’s view, the show must become appealing to popular audiences in a way that has to do with changing the integrity of the game and its values. At first, Bob opposes this idea, because part of the proposal involves inviting contestants who are not as proficient at solving crossword puzzles. When he and Crenshaw clash, chaos ensues for Bob and he must save his show and himself.
Along the way, Bob has to accept that he has previously underappreciated Brenda, who actually created the show with Bob but has never been recognized for her efforts. On a broader level, the show deals with concepts like friendship and the power of words and is filled with puns and wordplay.
According to Rabinowitz, the “real heart” of the show was making the emotional core of the story of a friendship rather than a romance. He, Wegner and Torres did not necessarily avoid a romantic plotline, but prioritized Bob and Brenda’s friendship in order to break from a typical cliché in musicals.
“So often in musicals, I think the rule of thumb is romance. It’s always about that couple,” Rabinowitz said.
According to Wegner, he and Charlie Romano ’19 first conceptualized the idea of writing something surrounding a game show in December 2020. Wegner emphasized that, coming out of a period in which there was little live theater, the group wanted to bring “a little joy” with this production.
Ultimately, Wegner, Rabinowitz and Romano worked together on the book of the show. As for the show’s production, Wegner wrote the lyrics, Romano composed the music, Strout was the orchestrator and music director, Torres directed the show and Rabinowitz was head producer.
“[We thought,] why don’t we do a show that’s just going to be silly and fun that everybody will have a good time doing?” Wegner said. “And we think that in general that has been our experience.”
According to Torres, the show made her realize how important it is for theater to provide escapism for the actors as much as for the audience. Torres emphasized that, although there is a “lot of value” in intense, historically-based storytelling, there shouldn’t be any less value in telling stories that are “full of joy and comedy” compared to those that have their central themes in serious topics such as trauma and oppression. Torres described “Word Nerd” as a “breath of fresh air.” In her conversations with the show’s cast, she found that they also enjoyed getting to perform “joy,” “fun” and comedy.
For the first two shows, Yale College regulations allowed the cast to have 75 percent audience capacity. This rule changed on April 25, allowing the musical to host audiences at the theater’s maximum capacity.
Torres mentioned that in the preparation process for the show, lead actor Vikram Akwei ’23 was infected with COVID-19 and had to isolate until the first night of the actual production. As a backup plan, Wegner stepped in and learned the entire script by heart.
“I’m really proud of this cast and am lucky to have worked with a lot of them — a lot of them were people that I’ve been wanting to work with and we have just never crossed paths. In my final last show, I finally got to work with them,” Torres said.
The Theater and Performance Studies Black Box is located at 53 Wall St.