When most people think of drama schools, Julliard in New York, The Goodman in Chicago, and UCLA in Los Angeles come to mind. But just a two-hour drive from LA is Palm Springs, California, home to Musical Theater University (MTU), the ultimate arts training program for high school students.
From their website: (MTU is) the most intensive and comprehensive pre-vocational training course in the performing arts for talented young people, Grades 8-13, throughout the Coachella Valley and counties and neighboring communities. The Coachella Valley Campus is sponsored and presented by the Palm Springs Unified School District. MTU was founded in Orange County, California, by David Green in 1999 and is now in residence at Rancho Mirage High School.
For years all theater-loving kids had a place to go and a place to learn all the basics and beyond, including shows in restaurants where the students performing were also your servers because that is. real life, and what artist hasn’t worked in a bloody restaurant? Where do you think the phrase “I am while waiting for my big break ” just ?
More seriously, performing in any venue gives you much needed experience, and the shows MTU was putting on at the Acqua California Bistro were a lot of fun and were a big hit with the locals.
And then the pandemic arrived. No schools, no theaters, no restaurants, and the ambitious but well-underway plan to put on a brand new Broadway musical has been put aside.
And when is it David Green, founder and executive / artistic director of MTU, had a big idea: to put on variety shows with the kids and broadcast them on a local channel. And that’s what he did.
Center of the first row, a half-hour TV music show featuring students from all four of PSUSD’s high schools, ran for 14 weeks on the local ABC affiliate in 2020.
When 2021 arrived things were a little less tight, but MTU’s usual vacation show would still be compromised by any Covid, so Green needed a new plan.
The previous year’s foray into television led Green to think of a feature film: an original teen musical, with a few romantic leads, a comedy, a plot (or ten), at least one bad girl, a few. Clever sidekicks – oh, and wouldn’t it be great if they could get some cameos from local stars? Green didn’t have this musical in his hip pocket, so he sat down and wrote it down. He wrote the book, and the lyrics of 16 songs with a frequent collaborator David Nehls provide the music of what we would call Blame it on the mistletoe.
The film is a fantastic exercise for the kids who shot it in just four weeks in and around Palm Springs. He has all pleasure and all the plot turns. There is no more mistletoe hanging, it all comes together at the end, all wrapped up like the Christmas present it is.
Green asked me not to watch the film again because “it was just a learning exercise”, a “teaching moment”. But I’ll argue his reasoning with this: it lasted 160 minutes and I didn’t look at my watch once. I had fun and impressed.
Does this sound like a big budget movie? No it costs $ 20,000 to make and even when you call in all the favors you won’t get White Christmas. But he is better than, hang your Lifetime girls pearls, better than a lot of repetitive lifelong vacation guts read back to back on your TV during the season.
There wasn’t really a red carpet, but the actors mingled in their red carpet finery before taking their seats in the front row. Their excitement was palpable and made an exceptionally special evening.
Don Amendolia and Marsha waterbury had a delightful ride as grandparents who own and operate the local restaurant where the kids perform. And cameos were a blast from the past: Lucie Arnaz as a drunk flower shop owner; Jim J. Bullock like the over-medicated dry cleaner, Lindsay wagner in a fun ride as high school principal and a hilarious Alix Kory as a hard-line emergency nurse.
The film will be shown locally at Mary pickford Theater in Cathedral City and The Tristone 10 Theaters in Palm Desert before moving to Broadway World On Demand starting December 19 for a week. The profits will be used to finance arts education.
To look at: Blame it on the mistletoe a production of MTU and PSUSD.
To learn more about the University of Musical Theater, visit musictheatreuniversity.com.