By Billy Huntsman
The Theatre Arts program at New Mexico State University was recently listed among the likes of Stanford, Pace, Yale, and Harvard Universities.
NMSU’s production of a reimagined Chicago in June prompted Playbill monthly magazine on August 25 to include NMSU’s program on its list “Innovative College Productions That Thought Outside the Theatrical Box.” Co-director and NMSU college assistant professor Megan McQueen was thrilled.
“I read that website probably multiple times a day,” McQueen says. “So it was really crazy to me for us to actually have anything on there.”
To McQueen’s recollection, no theatre arts program in New Mexico had ever before been represented on Playbill.
The NMSU Theatre Arts program’s recent production of Chicago in June started all the buzz. The musical, based on a 1926 play of the same name and turned into a film in 2002, which won the 75th Academy Award for Best Picture, is about two women on death row in 1920s Chicago. Both have aspirations of fame, sparking a rivalry between them. They share the same lawyer, who doubles as their press agent by feeding their stories to the media, in the hopes they will gain the public’s support and be freed.
McQueen made significant changes to the story in her production, inspired by Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black, about a woman’s experiences in an all-female prison. In NMSU’s Chicago, the inmates in an all-female prison put on a production of Chicago.
“I had watched and read OITNB and I thought, ‘That would be so interesting,’” McQueen says. “Because (Chicago’s) really about female criminals and I think the way (it’s been done) in the last couple decades sort of takes the emphasis away from that.”
McQueen refers to the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago, which is still running. This production started the tradition of all the women wearing “tiny, little black outfits,” making the musical “super sexy,” McQueen says.
“(Our version) is definitely less sexy in a lot of ways,” McQueen says, adding most of the characters in NMSU’s version wore sweatpants and T-shirts.
Because of this, McQueen says, she had initially been concerned as to how audiences would react to the changes in NMSU’s production.
“Because sex sells,” she says.
Despite this, all five nights of NMSU’s Chicago sold out.
McQueen says she did hear criticisms in regards to the changes in the show, which she expected.
“No matter how much a certain percentage of people like something, there’s always going to be people who don’t,” she says, going on to add, “A divided audience is better than indifferent.”
McQueen credits the run’s success to Chicago’s inherently compelling story. It’s also likely the OITNB influences played a part in the show’s success.
“I think the most important thing was that (the changes) made (the show) feel like something new,” McQueen says. “It made it feel like something that wasn’t a museum piece.”
McQueen says she’s a fan of the original Chicago and that the story didn’t “need” to be altered.
“It’s just it’s interesting, I think, sometimes to do something that makes us think about it in a way we haven’t thought about it before,” she says.
Another change was the nearly all-female cast.
“There were only two men (acting) in the show,” McQueen says. “And that was only because the people who give the rights to do the show said that they wouldn’t let us do it with all women.”
Overall, McQueen says she was grateful for the cast “buying into” the changes to the show and for their commitment.
“I was really impressed by them,” she says.
Chicago was the second production between NMSU and Scaffolding Theatre Company, which was co-founded by McQueen in 2014. McQueen says she and co-founder Justin Lucero established the company “to give opportunities for students and community members to work together.”
NMSU and Scaffolding first joint-produced Nine in summer 2014. Their third and latest production was Stephen Sondheim’s Passion through the weekend of August 21, 2015. The Theatre Arts program’s next production is a 10-night-run of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds.
For ticketing information and a full list of the program’s season, visit http://www.nmsutheatre.com/