Sometimes, it’s the unexpected things that unite us, that make us see past our differences and focus on some shared joy. At Seattle’s Roosevelt High School this month, it’s the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!,” which marks the school’s acclaimed drama department’s first onstage production in two years – and features, among its cast, 10 members of the school’s football team.
It’s not typical, to say the least, for football players and theater kids to team up to sing some ’70s disco-pop. (Outside of “Glee,” anyway.) But “Mamma Mia!” director Katie Greve, who runs the school’s theater and dance department with Ben Stuart, said it was an idea that came out of necessity: Not enough boys tried out for the show, which requires a large male chorus.
Greve had thought in the past about how the school was, like many high schools, “really kind of separated by cliques,” she said on the phone last week. Why not solve a casting problem by mingling two worlds? An invitation was extended to the football team, after consultation with the coach – and enthusiastically accepted. “All the guys who came (to audition) wanted to be in it!” Greve said. She didn’t have room in the cast for all 30 or so who tried out, but narrowed it down to 10 after a second round of auditions.
“I thought it was a great idea” to blend the two groups, said senior Rasa Yaghmaie, one of the football team captains, at Roosevelt’s auditorium Monday afternoon. Though he’d never been in a musical before, he remembered his older sister having good experiences doing Roosevelt shows. Turns out he’s a natural; after auditions, he was cast in one of the lead roles, as Bill, one of the three potential dads of bride Sophie, whose Greek island wedding is the show’s focal point. “I always knew I could sing a little,” he said, “but I never really tried before.”
“He’s an amazing actor!” chimed in Eloise Maguire, who plays mother of the bride, Donna (aka the Meryl Streep character in the movie). Maguire’s a senior who was rehearsing Roosevelt’s spring production of “High School Musical” in 2020 when it had to be canceled due to the pandemic; it’s been, she said, a very long two years.
At Monday’s run-through, things seemed happily chaotic, exacerbated by the fact that the cast had just had a full week off due to winter break. “Why is everything going wrong?” a student asked, of nobody in particular, as she hurried across the stage before the rehearsal began. Costumed students, head mics fitted, gathered in small groups; for many, masks couldn’t hide some giddy joy.
It’s been a long road to this “Mamma Mia!”: auditions over Zoom last spring; careful, masked rehearsals beginning last fall; a postponement this winter (the show was pushed out a month, due to the omicron surge); finally onstage for seven performances this month, March 3-5 and 9-12. And it represents a rebuilding of sorts for the program: Greve noted that, with two years of performance time lost, the juniors and seniors in the cast don’t have the institutional knowledge they normally would.
For the football players, of course, everything about this experience has been brand-new – such as learning dance numbers. “The small details matter a lot more” than in football, said Jacob Glazer-Fleishman, a sophomore offensive lineman. He said the choreographer was always reminding him to make little refinements like straightening his arm – “that’s something I didn’t have to pay attention to in sports.” Greve said the football players adapted to choreography remarkably well: “They had a natural movement ability.”
And Yaghmaie wasn’t the only one to discover a love for singing. “I was honestly shocked that I got in. I thought, no way, I have no musical talent,” said junior defensive lineman Beck Sweeney. “But now that I’ve had these people to show me how to sing, I’ve realized that I’m kind of good at it. It makes me happy.”
As with any show, the cast of “Mamma Mia!” became a community – all the more so for having so many new members, bringing fresh enthusiasm. Maguire, noting that the theater program can be “kind of an insular community,” said that it was “really special sharing this experience with people who are doing it for the first time and learning how awesome and fun and kind of crazy it is.”
Assistant choreographer Myles Mawa, a senior, appreciated that the football players came in with no expectations. “There was no ‘this is what it’s usually like, why isn’t it like this now?’” Though he acknowledged “a few bumps” in the beginning, ultimately everything came together. “We’re all able to talk to each other and understand each other. … From a choreography standpoint, it’s definitely interesting to have nontheater people come in. Watching their growth through the process has been really cool.”
It’s been an opportunity not only to learn new skills, but widen social circles. Senior Ursula DeBray, the show’s assistant director, said that while she knew the football players from other classes, theater has always felt like a separate space – “it’s funny to see people who were out there, and now they’re in here. They’ve been very respectful, and I feel like I’ve made some friends.” Corinne Fischer, a senior who plays Donna’s friend Tanya (the Christine Baranski role in the movie), echoed the sentiment: “I feel very close to them now. I know them very individually.” And Greve confirmed that a few romances – no names, please – have sprung up, further bridging the divide.
Three of the players, including Sweeney, had such a good time that they’re going to be in the spring show, “The SpongeBob Musical.”
“This whole theater atmosphere is just inviting and it excels at making you feel welcome,” Sweeney said. “Everyone here contributes to the overall play, and everyone just loves each other. It’s really sweet.”
“I’m so proud of these guys,” said Greve, “for being so vulnerable, for showing up and doing something they’ve never done before, on a stage with an audience watching them do this thing that they’ve never done before. That’s a true testament to their character.”
The Monday run-through was a little bumpy for everyone, as run-throughs after a week off tend to be. An actor came on stage still in her mask, quickly whipping it off; a guitar prop vanished and had to be delivered midscene; a music cue (“Mamma Mia!” uses only recorded tracks) came up wrong; and not every dance move looked perfect, just yet. But the theater buzzed with happy energy, as everyone on stage belted out “Dancing Queen,” whirling in formations and beaming at each other, caught up in a long-awaited moment. Just like that, they were no longer athletes and theater kids – they were just an ensemble, making music and joy together.
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