Elon Performing Arts' workshop premiere of the new musical was rehearsed and filmed last fall. It was co-written by Elon alumnus and faculty member Dan Gibson MTE '10 and is Elon's first filmed musical.
Between body slams, outside the ring, and away from the glare of arena spotlights, even pro wrestlers have to find themselves.
Just like the rest of us, sometimes that means defying expectations and shucking society’s imposed roles.
That’s the premise of “Beast Mode Champion,” Elon Performing Arts Departments’ first filmed musical, which premieres Friday, Feb. 19, on ElonPerformingArts.com. Set in the raucous late 1990s heyday of professional wrestling — when Dwayne Johnson was still “The Rock” and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shotgunned beers center-ring — the rock musical mines ideas of masculinity, identity and performance by following a team of unlikely heroes looking for power, fame and love.
But first things first, it’s fun.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Sayo Oni ’23, whose character Eddie Green chases a childhood dream of pro-wrestling stardom. “It has so much heart. The music is incredible, the book too. It’s filled with adrenaline.”
Undergraduates rehearsed and filmed the musical last fall. Pandemic complications pushed its release to this month.
“Beast Mode Champion” was co-written by Elon alumnus Dan Gibson ’10 and Alex Higgin-Houser, and Elon’s music theatre program’s performance is its workshop premiere. Gibson and Higgin-Houser developed the show in NYU Tisch’s graduate in Musical Theatre Writing program. Gibson returned to Elon in summer 2020 as an assistant professor of performing arts, is the show’s composer and musical director.
It follows the stories of Eddie, his friend Julian Masters, and wrestling magnate’s daughter Mel Sacks. Each holds secrets from those around them before finding the courage to be themselves.
Gibson likens the show to the absurd settings of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Urinetown,” where realistic characters and dramas play out in outlandish surroundings. He and Higgin-Houser developed the story and characters following an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that documented the working conditions and health risks professional wrestlers face.
“It humanized them. They’re artists who need the same things we all do,” Gibson, who based the music on mainstream rock and commercial jingles from the ‘80s and ’90s, said. “We really liked the idea of wrestling as a backdrop for the show about current and meaningful issues like toxic masculinity, gender and racial inequity, and sexual identity.”
Workshopping the musical gave actors and crew the experience of seeing a show in development. Gibson and Higgin-Houser augmented the book and music during the rehearsal process, and the cast and crew had to adapt to those changes in script and staging. The dry-run offered opportunities for actors to experiment and challenged them to originate a character, Oni said.
“It was a freeing experience,” Oni said. “The show was changing up until the filming, and it was cool to see a show develop and change like that. It felt like it was being tailored to each individual performer.”
Professor of Performing Arts Kirby Wahl directed the musical, guiding the production through several iterations. As the pandemic progressed and new realities took hold, the show went from a staged musical intended for a limited audience, to a musical filmed on the McCrary Theatre stage — with actors distanced and masks obscured by camera work — to a film. For two weekends in October, the cast and crew shot the scenes in the tent behind the Center for the Performing Arts. J McMerty, director of the Elon in Los Angeles Program and assistant professor of cinema and television arts, shot the film and his crew edited it.
An obvious hurdle: How do you make a show about the sweaty, high-contact realm of professional wrestling when actors have to be masked and socially distanced? Solving that problem, Wahl commissioned Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist Alex Dunn to illustrate the wrestling matches. The edited film cuts to illustrations of the characters in action using techniques akin to fight sequences in anime.
Dunn created 82 illustrations for “Beast Mode Champion,” employing an American style of comic book art with his own sensibilities. The “Beast Mode Champion” team sent him photos of the actors and their costumes, and he set about researching the holds and moves described in the book’s fight sequences.
“There’s a line between realism and cartooning that I love,” Dunn said. “You want all of the human emotion and sense of the characters, but you don’t want it to be too rendered or realistic. Ironically, that can take life away from an illustration.”
The end result is a two-and-a-half-hour show unlike any other in Elon’s history that students and the program are proud of, Wahl said. Student performers grew their stage skills as well as acquiring film experience — shooting out of sequence, hitting marks, calibrating a performance for the screen, managing a film set — and the musical was completed safely during a tremendously vexing time.
Despite the hard work amid the perils of a pandemic, they had fun making it. They hope that and the show’s zany warmth translate to audiences.
“Never did I think I would fall in love with a rock musical about wrestling,” Oni added. “Come in willing to accept new perspectives. Identity is something that is very prominent throughout the show … but it’s also lighthearted. We’re learning through a medium that’s fun and enjoyable, so enjoy it.”
“You say, ‘pro-wrestling rock musical,’ and it makes you smile,” Wahl added. “It speaks for itself.”