ASU Music Theatre and Opera collaborates on official cast album for new musical

By

Lynne MacDonald

Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera, in collaboration with musical theater writers Rachel Dean and David Brush, released the official cast album for “The Anxiety Project.” The new musical is a 90-minute themed production based on anonymous true stories of people who experience anxiety or depression.

"The Anxiety Project: Original Cast Album," released on YouTube, features 21 show tracks plus a bonus Dean-Brush song, "Something to Leave Behind," performed by ASU alumna and Broadway tour performer Caelan Creaser. The recording will soon be available on over 150 streaming platforms including Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play and Amazon Music.

“The Anxiety Project” is the first full-length musical recorded at ASU involving ASU students, and it features eight music theater and opera majors. The album features performances by alum Kade Bailey, Hahnna Christianson, Griffin LeBlanc, alum Sara Louise, Gretta Perlmutter, alum Nellie Shuford, Gigi Sierra and Cade Trotter.

“I'm thrilled with how well the students did making a recording — a new experience for nearly all of us — and they sound terrific,” said Brian DeMaris, artistic director for music theater and opera and associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “I think people will love hearing the music, and the subject offers opportunities for learning and healing, especially during challenging times.”

Following three years of developmental workshops and concerts, a staged reading at the New York Film Academy (2017) under the direction of Robert Schneider, the musical direction of Kevin David Thomas, and development in Tokyo and Akron, Ohio, the show received further development at ASU.

As part of an ASU course offered in partnership with the Phoenix Theatre Company, students had the opportunity to present material from multiple works proposed for the Phoenix Theatre Company Festival of New American Theatre, and they selected “The Anxiety Project.”

Video courtesy of Dean Brush.

The musical follows psychology student Avery, who is in her final semester of undergraduate studies and in just a few short weeks will earn her degree and be one step closer to the ultimate goal of opening her own practice. That's assuming she finishes her thesis — a study of the mechanics of mental illness and how science can change lives. Case after case, Avery becomes immersed in the lives of these patients — the day-to-day struggles of anxiety, depression, suicide, medication. But when one of the cases hits very close to home, Avery realizes that numbers only tell part of the story of mental illness.

The musical became an official selection of the Phoenix Theatre Company’s Festival of New American Theatre in 2018, and festival organizer Robert Harper, associate artistic director for the Phoenix Theatre Company and faculty associate with the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, identified the musical as a piece that would be excellent for students to workshop at ASU and perform at the festival.

Hahnna Christianson and Nellie Shuford in the recording studio.

“Our first association with ASU's incredible program was via the Phoenix Theatre Company's Festival of New American Theatre,” said Brush, lyricist and librettist. “For us, the timing was ideal — it was exactly what we as artists needed and exactly what the show needed at this developmental phase.”

The students also performed the musical that year as part of ASU Music Theatre and Opera’s new works initiative, which exposes students to the creative process of new work development. Students participated in several developmental workshops for the piece.

“Any new work brings its own challenges, but specific to ‘The Anxiety Project’ was the weight of the work we were doing,” said Kathryn Leonard, director for “The Anxiety Project” workshops and production manager for Music Theatre and Opera. “Mental health is such an important subject to explore, and submerging myself and our cast into that world was challenging but necessary to make sure these stories were told in the most honest and respectful way possible.”

Musicals take a long time to create, Brush said, and cannot be done without important developmental programs like the ASU Music Theatre and Opera’s new works series.

“Programs like what ASU offers are invaluable to the art form continuing into perpetuity,” said Dean, New York City-based composer, pianist and music director. 

Dean said the professionally produced cast recording will present a musical understanding of the show's potential and impact on audiences to potential producers, directors and companies that will hopefully lead to a fully realized production.

“New work development is incredibly important for the future of our art form,” Leonard said. “Ideally, our students will have the opportunity in their careers to originate roles, and learning to do that in the safe space of their college is so beneficial. Our students are able to help shape their characters and inform revisions to the scripts, which helps develop collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.”

“The Anxiety Project” album was recorded at Tempest Recording in Tempe in January 2020, with editing and mastering before the pandemic. The album was produced by ASU Music Theatre and Opera, made possible in part by research funding from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.