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By Brian Robin

Erin McNally Colors Inside—and Outside—the Boxes

As a music educator, Erin McNally is a big fan of metaphors. As a musician, McNally sees the world as a mosaic, every note, every measure coming with a color that signifies emotion, thought, meaning.

So the crayon metaphor that came to her one day teaching musical theatre to fifth and sixth graders at SCR’s Youth Conservatory was a colorful masterstroke in how to convey emotion in music.

“A script is a coloring book. It’s the same as if someone came along with a blank page,” she said. “an author comes along and writes on that blank page. We get this song and the goal is not just to sing this song. I have to color that page in. Maybe someone takes the red crayon and sings that part so lightly that it’s a pinkish color. All of a sudden, that same red crayon is colored so hard that it is a dark, red waxy disc.

“It’s how we choose to take our voices and emotions and infuse them on this black and white score, this script. How we choose to bring emotion to life. … During rehearsals, we don’t tell them to go to point A or point B. We ask them, ‘How do you feel about this scene? How do you want to color the scene?’”

As the music director for the Summer Players production of Matilda The Musical, McNally gets her students to open up the full 128-crayon Crayola box of crayons. She gets them to see music as a multi-dimensional creation that conveys color and emotion in subtle—and not so subtle—ways.

This year’s Summer Players production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is a perfect example. Both McNally and director Hisa Takakuwa said Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics are some of the most complex they’ve put in front of their students. McNally called Minchin’s harmonies “crunchy,” for the way he stacks two notes up next to each other, without a rest. It’s demanding.

“That creates tension, creates, ‘crunch.’ That’s some of the hardest stuff, for a young person to incorporate harmony into storytelling,” she said. “We talk about how a song in a musical is someone speaking. It’s a monologue. Any song in the show, unless it’s sung by a choir, is meant to make sounds and tell a story. A tabernacle choir can sing beautiful harmonies. They can focus on the notes. …

“In musical theatre, the number one job is storytelling and you have to have it make sense for storytelling. Here (in Matilda The Musical), there are ever-changing time signatures. Then, add on interesting music and dialects. You have to deal with dialects and diction that is required here for the audience to understand. These kids are balancing all of this unique music and my job, as I see it, is to break it down and demystify it. They see how the more unique it is, the more fun it is.”

McNally is having as much fun as the Summer Players are, introducing them to the wonders of the crayon box that each of them have.

See how the Summer Players color in Matilda The Musical, running Aug. 6-14 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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