On the afternoon of Oct. 16, musical theater students of Emerson College trickled into the Randall Lobby of the Paramount Theater, lunches in hand, and anxious chatter on their tongues. As they seated themselves around café-like tables, they talked quietly in anticipation of the arrival of three Broadway stars: Marc Kudisch, Jeff Mattsey, and Ben Davis of Baritones UnBound, a musical ArtsEmerson production that ran on the Paramount Mainstage from Oct. 8 to Oct. 20.
The stars and their creative team entered among a final wave of students. All three were dressed casually and nonchalantly sat down, remaining humble against the backdrop of conversations, despite a history of Broadway productions and Tony awards. After a quick introduction and a warm round of applause from the starstruck students, the three baritones helped themselves to lunch and began mingling for what ArtsEmerson coined the Brown Bag Lunch, a casual event designed to give the school’s community a glimpse into the production and the artists themselves.
Baritones UnBound provides a musical history of the baritone voice, exhibiting its use in a variety of music styles, including show tunes, popular music, and opera. The production celebrates the revolutionary sound of the baritone as the “uncommon voice of the common man” and explores its disappearance in the past 30 years or so, drawing sympathy for the modern-day baritone and depicting a living, breathing history.
The lunch, besides allowing Emerson students to meet celebrity professionals in the business, gave the stars a platform on which to give advice to prospective performers, writers, and adults in the working world.
“I think, for us as professionals, we have a lot of advice to offer students trying to make their way into the business,” said Timothy Splain, the pianist for Baritones UnBound, who joined the three baritones at the lunch.
Splain has contributed to writing the play since its conception.
“When I was in college, I didn’t know what was in the world,” he said. “I didn’t know what real life was like. I didn’t know the process of getting a job. This [event], for us, is to offer that perspective. It’s not what they talk about in the classroom.”
The students in the room were wholeheartedly engaged in listening to Splain and the baritones discuss their lives and careers. Many had notebooks in front of them, while others rapidly typed notes onto their phones. Some students simply basked in the celebrities’ presence.
Tara Feeley, a junior performing arts major, partook in the Master Class with Kudisch and attended the lunch prior to seeing Baritones Unbound. In the Master Class, eight students were able to work closely with Kudisch in a singing workshop. At the lunch, a comparatively more casual setting in which to talk to the stars, Feeley confessed her lifelong dream of meeting him.
“This is horribly embarrassing and I don’t want to say it too loud, but… I’ve had the DVD version of Bye Bye Birdie, the first play Marc was in , since I was seven,” she said. “I’ve been excited for this moment since then.”
Feeley took her time in progressing around the room to sit in front of Kudisch — she first met the other stars and then quietly sat in the circle that had gathered around him throughout the course of the lunch.
“This makes them seem real, instead of just idols,” said Feeley. “It reminds you that this can happen.”
In bringing Baritones Unbound to a university setting first, the creative team hoped to get feedback in a pressure-free environment, said Splain. He explained that college students are more inclined to learn and absorb the production’s message without critiquing it as heavily as critics in the business.
“The show is good for the university crowd because it gives a history of the baritone,” said Davis, one of the three lead performers. “It starts a discussion, and it hopefully spurs composers and playwriting students to start writing differently.”
Kudisch emphasized the importance of the production and his reasoning behind creating the show in the first place. With a ring of engaged students surrounding him, Kudisch played up his theatrical side as he spoke to them.
“The show is saying that the baritone has disappeared. You see story. You see struggle. You see man struggling with humanity and finding his place,” he said. “The way I see it, if you’re going to put something on stage, you better have a damn good reason of doing it.”
Mattsey, one of the leading baritones in the show, felt that talk-backs and events like the lunch helped them refine the show, while Davis said he sees them as a way of putting out their message in a more personal setting. Kudisch explained that he believes in helping each other, and nothing more.
“I live to witness that ‘Aha!’ moment in someone else. I had friends helping me, and I want to help others,” said Kudisch. “The biggest advice I can give, though, is something that helps beyond connections in the business and beyond working hard. If you have an idea, just run with it. You’ll run into walls. But, you know what? Now you know where that wall is.”