Looking out over New York City’s Central Park through a wall of glass, BYU student Shae Hunsaker Robins (’15) should have felt jittery—getting voice lessons from a Broadway great in his own apartment. But “my nerves were calm,” she says, as composer Frank Wildhorn of Jekyll & Hyde and Scarlet Pimpernel fame tutored her at his piano.
Wildhorn was training Robins for a role he had awarded to her personally—a lead in the U.S. premiere of his musical The Count of Monte Cristo, which he invited BYU to debut in English following a successful run in Korea and Switzerland.
“BYU has the talent,” says Wildhorn, who discovered the university in 2013, when he performed his music at a BYU concert. While teaching master classes during his visit, Wildhorn determined that BYU would be a good fit to workshop Monte Cristo on its path to Broadway. “BYU has a wonderful, wonderful arts program that I’m attracted to. . . . It’s a wonderful place to do good work.”
After returning for auditions and offering Robins and Preston K. Yates (’16) the lead roles of Mercedes and Edmund, Wildhorn hugged them and said, “I trust that you can represent me and my show well.”
“We don’t often produce new musicals,” says BYU producer Jeffery Q. Martin (BA ’00), “especially not in a situation where we are able to collaborate directly with the writers.”
Wildhorn and lyricist Jack Murphy, both Tony-nominated Broadway regulars, had never premiered a show with students. “They’re young enough to be my grandkids,” says Murphy. “But they bring an exuberance you don’t get elsewhere.”
Wildhorn attended auditions and early rehearsals, “which was terribly intimidating for our students,” says director Timothy A. Threlfall (’97). “If the tempos weren’t right he’d start pounding on the table. He was generous and warm but also to the point.”
Murphy visited for a run-through in November. “They didn’t use books,” he recalls. “Nobody called for a line. I was very impressed.”
Monte Cristo tells the story of Edmund’s search for revenge and, ultimately, redemption, and the character of Mercedes adds the theme of love: “You see the revenge side in all the other characters,” says Robins. “But the love Edmund has for Mercedes is part of the driving and motivating force for him.” Threlfall says her performance had to be spot on: “She carries the show. Frank really relies on his female leads.”
Away from Broadway’s notoriously harsh critics, the creators worked with the BYU team during rehearsals to make changes to the show, including editing lines and adding a new scene and ballet choreography.
“The main purpose of the production here [was] . . . to get it in front of an audience, see what works and what could use more refinement,” says Martin. “I anticipate the show will have a long life ahead of it.”