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Professor reimagines presidential campaign as musical comedy

by Sydney Hawkins09/12/2016

Long before a reality television star became a presidential nominee, award-winning composer, theater artist and filmmaker Andy Kirshner was thinking about the close relationship between politics and popular entertainment.

Fascinated by the similarities between "statecraft" and "stagecraft," and by the sophisticated science of political image-making, Kirshner, an associate professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, set out to create a feature-length musical film about the song and dance of modern American politics.

The result - eight years later - is Liberty's Secret, a satirical movie-musical in the grand tradition of Technicolor MGM movie-musicals and of balloon-filled, made-for-TV conventions.

A one-night-only screening at the Michigan Theater at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 marks the world premiere of Liberty's Secret, which has been booked at film festivals in the United States and Germany, and will be released on DVD and video-on-demand after its festival run.

Kirshner's new film follows the rise of Liberty Smith, the squeaky-clean daughter of a "family values" preacher, who becomes the symbolic centerpiece of a socially conservative presidential campaign.

When ingénue Liberty falls in love with her female spin-doctor, the result is a political catastrophe. A video of the two kissing goes viral, and a confused Liberty must choose between the life she knows, and the love she has always dreamed of -- while all of America watches.

The film stars SMTD graduate Cara AnnMarie (BMA '01, voice and theater) and newcomer Jacléne Wilk in the romantic lead roles. Kirshner says that while Liberty's Secret takes great pleasure in poking fun at political hypocrisy and cable news celebrities, it is essentially a love story between two women.

"I love old musicals - like those by George Gershwin, Meredith Wilson, Leonard Bernstein and Frank Loesser - but frankly, the gender politics of the musical-theater classics are terrible," he said.

"I wanted to write a musical that would capture some of the same tap-dancing, jazz-inspired joy of an earlier era, but where the women weren't tamed by men, or where they didn't always have to fall in love with a boy, as if that were the only real-life possibility for a happy ending. I wanted to write a traditional musical that was nontraditional."

In addition to composing, writing, producing and co-directing the film with choreographer Debbie Williams, Kirshner performs the role of Rolf Schnitzel, a carefully coiffed celebrity-journalist.

Shot entirely in Southeast Michigan, including many locations on U-M's Ann Arbor campus (like the Michigan League Ballroom), Liberty's Secret was created with help of more than 150 Ann Arborites who served as extras and many talented students, staff and faculty members from the U-M community.

Stamps alumna Laura Pazuchowski led an art department staffed by many current Stamps students and alumni, and several of Kirshner's musical colleagues from SMTD are featured as both performers and instrumentalists.

Students from Stamps' interarts performance BFA program and from SMTD's MFA dance program appear with Malcolm Tulip, assistant professor of theater and drama, and associate professor of art and design, in one of the film's more outrageous scenes, while SMTD professor Cynthia Kortman-Westphal led a singing chorus of current SMTD musical-theater, voice students and faculty members. SMTD voice professor Caroline Helton is particularly notable as a hula-hooping church lady.

A true U-M community project, alumni from U-M's Screen Arts and Cultures program joined the film crew, and the soundtrack was recorded in the U-M Library's audio studios in the Duderstadt Center.

"I don't think I could possibly have made this movie anywhere but at Michigan, with its incredible combination of technological resources, support for faculty, talented students, and world-class artistic colleagues," Kirshner said.

Advanced tickets are available online at the Michigan Theater website. Tickets are $10, or $8 for students.

The special Ann Arbor screening is sponsored by the Stamps School of Art and Design; School of Music, Theatre & Dance; Institute for Research on Women and Gender; Spectrum Center; Institute for the Humanities, School of Information, and the Department of Performing Arts and Technology.


past news

April 2017

Clare Croft, assistant professor of dance, received a grant of $6,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (a summer stipend) to support work on her current book project, a biography of American dance critic and lesbian activist Jill Johnston (1929-2010).      04/10/2017

March 2016

Congratulations to junior dance major Danielle Fattore, who was one of four winners of the 2016 Joffrey Ballet School Summer Scholarship Contest! Fattore will have the opportunity to participate in a 2016 Joffrey Ballet School Summer Intensive of her choice!   03/07/2016

August 2014
July 2014

Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Dance, Peter Sparling is a recipient of a Distinguished University Professorship. Effective September 1, Sparling will be a Rudolf Arnheim Distinguished University Professor. This appointment is one of the highest honors the University can bestow upon a faculty member.   07/18/2014

U-M, GVSU collaboration to bring alternative-energy inspired arts performance to Muskegon 07/16/2014

December 2013

Students enrolled in the 2013 "Dance and Related Arts" course present Between the Hairs, an evening of collaborative works inspired by interdisciplinary artist Meredith Monk. The concert is the culmination of a semester-long exploration of movement, music, collaboration, and the creative process.   12/05/2013

November 2013

SMTD Department of Dance professor Peter Sparling and U-M Life Sciences Institute professor Dan Klionsky collaborated on a project to explain the science of autophagy through dance. A segment of DPTV's "Detroit Performs" covers the story and can be seen on demand starting Nov. 13.   11/12/2013

October 2013

Congratulations to dance students Maddy Rager and Nola Smith, winners of the 2013 Maggie Allesee New Choreography Award for their duet "Small Victories," which they performed at Michigan Dance Day at Hope College. This is the second year in a row that the award has gone to U-M Dance students.   10/17/2013

September 2013

Judy Rice, associate professor of dance, is the subject of the cover article for the September issue of Dance Teacher Magazine. This is the "college issue" that includes a Higher Education Guide for its 80,000+ readers.    09/19/2013

Alumni to be Honored at Awards Ceremony on October 4 09/09/2013

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Photography Credits:

U-M Photo Services

Joe Welsh

Peter Smith

David Smith

Glen Behring

Tom Bower