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Student-Written Musical Takes Stage

A.J. Pendola and Abi York were as curious of what was to come as the rest of the audience at the Kennedy Center on the evening of Aug. 5, but they were a bit more nervous.

After working several hours per week for eight months to compose the songs of "Senioritis" — a musical written by nine local high-school theater students — Pendola and York had seen it performed only once in a dry run two days earlier.

Yet the young composers had faith that their Stone Bridge High School drama teacher and the director of "Senioritis," Glen Hochkeppel, would be able pull off the show after only five days of serious rehearsals. Even Hochkeppel, however, who planned the rehearsals meticulously and blocked out the whole show weeks before, said that the challenge was very daunting.

The lights in the theater dimmed and the audience quickly hushed. The curtain opened.

TEN MONTHS EARLIER in study hall, Pendola convinced York to join him on the creative team of the Cappies’ second student-written musical. It helped that he and York, a junior and sophomore at the time, were already quite familiar with the Critics and Awards program, also known as the Cappies.

The Cappies train high-school students to write theater reviews of shows at other high schools throughout Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. At the end of the year, the program awards prizes to the best-reviewed shows and performances at the National Capital Area at the Cappies Gala.

During the 2006 Cappies Gala, both Pendola and York performed in a scene from Stone Bridge’s Cappies-nominated musical, "Seussical the Musical." Seussical, which garnered a record 15 nominations, eventually won the award for Best Musical.

"It was a perfect storm of a really fun show and very talented kids," said Hochkeppel of Seussical.

Pendola has been involved with the Cappies since he became a critic during his freshman year, and was immediately drawn to the opportunity to write his own music. He’s studied music theory for several years and is an awarded singer and saxophonist, but does not have York’s song-writing experience.

"I’ve been writing poems, lyrics and songs since I could spell," said York, who Pendola proudly states is a terrific piano player. She has taken piano lessons for six years and describes herself as a "Billy Joel singer-songwriter."

After a serious application process that involved the submission of original music and teacher recommendations, Pendola and York were named as two of the four student composers for "Senioritis" in last October. They were extremely excited but perhaps not as prepared for the time commitment that the musical would demand.

WRITING A TWO-ACT MUSICAL can be intimidating to even the most experienced Broadway composer. Some might consider it impossible for nine high-school theater students from the Washington, D.C.-metropolitan area also juggling advanced-placement classes, high-school drama, distracting friends and nagging parents. Pendola said that composing songs for the musical forced him to improve his time-management skills.

"Writing this musical was such a tough time-consuming process, it’s going to make high school and the college process easier," said Pendola "If you think AP classes are hard, try writing a musical on deadline."

In the first month of the project, all nine members of the writing team met as a whole to collaborate on the story. They had been asked by the Cappies to base their plot on the theme: "the students, their relationships with their parents, and the next step from high school." York said that she and the rest of the group were immediately more interested in the interaction between students and adults than in teenager relationships.

"Part of us being teenagers is we’re trying to get over high-school drama," said York. "High-school drama is boring. Been there, done that."

The idea of basing the musical on senioritis, a term used to describe the laziness of high-school seniors after they’ve been accepted into college, was kicked around from the very beginning. Over the next few months, "Senioritis" would evolve into a musical comedy about the senior class at Erma Schmoe High School, which unknowingly becomes the object of an experiment testing the scientific basis of senioritis.

The seniors’ first quarter grades and tests are manipulated so that the students are rejected from their dream colleges. But the experiment backfires when the seniors discover the experiment and plan the worse case of senioritis in history.

Although Pendola and York have not yet experienced senioritis, they are well aware of the pressures that parents put on children to do well in school. York says that her parents have been bugging her since freshman year to keep her GPA up so that she can get into a good college. They are also conscious of the benefits of being involved in such a project when it comes time for themselves to apply to college.

"The irony is that we did most of [the musical] so it gets on our college resume," laughs Pendola.

"Not most of it," interrupts York. "But it’s an added bonus."

Pendola and York still maintain a close and carefree friendship after spending many stressful hours together trying to complete songs on deadline. Meetings typically consisted of only the two of them and took place for several hours at least once a week. The duo would eventually contribute half of the musical’s 18 original songs, with many of them alterations of songs that York had composed previously.

Since her personal thoughts and other people’s conversations are the main inspirations for her songs, York said that she inevitably felt weird when the lyricists would completely change the meaning behind a song. One piece that made it into the musical was originally written about overcoming insecurity, but became a song about applying to college. Although York admits that she was initially disappointed with all the things that were changed in production of the play, she believes that the lyricists and production team have done her songs justice.

THE CURTAINS SWING open to a standing ovation from the audience. The student cast takes a second bow and then calls the creative team up on the stage for its own recognition. After being left out of the program by accident, York and Pendola are pleasantly surprised at the thundering response they receive.

"It was a very good feeling, especially after thinking they didn’t put us in the program," said York.

Both York and Pendola have a busy year ahead. York will begin her junior year in the fall and will be taking her hardest course load so far in high school. Pendola will be a senior and is planning to apply to 13 schools, including Columbia University. But standing on stage at the Kennedy Center, they could pause to appreciate a special moment for any playwright or composer.

"It’s not just our friends and family, it’s Kennedy Center regulars seeing the show," said Pendola. "It was a dream realized."