Paly Theatre performs first virtual musical

Sofie Zalatimo, Senior Staff Writer

Singing and dancing their way into a digital environment, Palo Alto High School Theatre students are performing their first virtual musical, “The Theory of Relativity,” with performances until April 24. 

Costumed as Oliver from “The Theory of Relativity,” junior Ameer Ali films his performance individually after months of Zoom rehearsals and preparation. Palo Alto High School Theatre is performing its first musical since shifting to a virtual environment, with its final performance April 24. In contrast to previous productions, Paly Theatre pre-filmed the show, which Ali said posed a new challenge for student actors. “I think it’s just been really fun to experience the different technological aspects of it because it’s something I’ve never done before for a musical, so there was kind of a learning curve to create a character,” Ali said. “You had to record the music … and then you had to record dancing separately and your lip-syncing or acting separately, so it was fun to exercise those skills individually, and then put them all together at the end.” Photo: Ameer Ali

According to Theater Director Sarah Thermond, “The Theory of Relativity” follows a group of college students attempting to navigate friendship and romance, learning how their relationships define them. 

“It’s a bit of a vignette show in terms of each character having their own story and relationship with the themes of the play,” Thermond said. “We get introduced to them as individuals with occasional group numbers in between. … It doesn’t have a very strictly linear plot. It’s mostly just the different characters who populate this world and the journeys they’re going through to arrive at a happier place with who they are and the community around them.”

While previous virtual productions relied primarily on live performances by the students, Paly Theatre chose to pre-film the entire performance and edit students’ clips together due to the musical aspects. According to cast member and junior Ameer Ali, who plays the character of Oliver in the show, students were tasked with recording themselves singing individually to musical tracks, then filming the visual components by lip-syncing to their recordings.

“The way you sing certain lines, and vocal inflection, it’s all part of how you’re portraying a character,” Ali said. “It was interesting to think about that in the early stages when you’re recording the song because you won’t be able to redo it when it comes time to record the movement and the visual part of it.”

Ali said he found it helpful to have multiple attempts at recording his songs and performances. However, despite the convenience of pre-recording, some cast members found themselves facing new challenges due to the virtual setting. Sophomore Rebecca Helft said working independently lacked the energizing aspect of rehearsing and performing with her peers.

“All the recordings are just us recording alone in our rooms that are then matched up with other people’s recordings, which is definitely new, and it doesn’t hold the same kind of togetherness and community that in-person shows have,” Helft said. “Especially in ensemble pieces, it’s hard to be an ensemble when you’re not together.”

Before completing the filming process, the cast gathered in the Paly Performing Arts Center to film group dance numbers on the stage while masked and distanced. Helft said that performing the dances in-person created the sense of community that was difficult to achieve in a virtual environment.

“It was such an almost cathartic experience to be with the people I’ve been working on the show with and being able to finally feel that energy again,” Helft said. “It felt more together and more whole. We were all working together in a way that it hadn’t really felt like before.”

Helft said the themes of community and connection — or lack thereof — relate not only to her experiences rehearsing for the show, but also to widespread experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This show specifically is very much about how people connect to one to one another,” Helft said. “What a lot of people are missing right now is connection. … I think people are going to really be able to relate and connect to the characters who are feeling isolation, and then the characters who aren’t feeling isolation and are happy about it, because hopefully soon we’ll all be together again.”

Freshman Emma Healy said she found a strong sense of community among her cast members despite the challenges of the online environment.

“It’s so much fun building the community,” Healy said. “There are a lot of seniors and juniors … and it’s really incredible being able to learn more about Paly through the people part of the musical and to be able to learn how it works.”

Tickets for the upcoming performance of “The Theory of Relativity” are available through the Paly Theatre website.