San Diego State University College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts

Developing ‘Til Death Do Us Part

New Musical Initiative is dedicated to working with musical theatre writers on new material

Developing ‘Til Death Do Us Part

February 18, 2019

By Hunter Katz, Edited by Dr. Katie Turner

March 8, 2019

The SDSU School of Theatre, Television, and Film is launching a new program led by MFA in Musical Theatre professors Robert Meffe and Stephen Brotebeck called the New Musical Initiative. This ambitious project is dedicated to creating a space for new musical theatre writers to try out their material. A brand new musical is chosen and developed over the course of two years with a staged reading, a workshop production, and finally a fully staged production. The project commenced in 2018 with new musical ‘Til Death Do Us Part by Bobby Cronin and Caroline Prugh.

’Til Death Do Us Part tells the story of evangelical prodigy Matthew Whitfield as he heads off to the Glory Day Bible College to become a pastor. There he meets Grace Lewis, an ambitious, aspiring preacher, fit to become a pastor. However the traditional guidelines of the Church discourage women from becoming evangelical preachers. Matthew falls in love with Grace and marries her despite opposition. Grace secretly writes Matthew’s sermons in the traditional community of Pixley, Tennessee, and the community becomes outraged over their more radical and unorthodox messaging. Reverend Bart Whitfield, Matthew’s father, becomes suspicious of Matthew’s new wife and suspects Grace of fundamentally changing the traditions of the church to be more female friendly. He pressures Matthew to change his views on women or risk losing his pastoral career. Overall, the musical deals with how women are presented in religious institutions and questions, “What does it really mean to be perfect in God’s view?”

’Til Death Do Us Part is written by Caroline Prugh, with music and lyrics by Bobby Cronin. Prugh and Cronin have an extensive history of collaboration. “I had an Off-Broadway play which Bobby came to see, and I was there that night for a talk-back,” said Prugh. Afterwards he came up to me and said, ‘I can hear the music in your words—do you write for musical theatre?’ I was very excited to get to write with him.” 

“It was inspired by a true-life story – the Mary and Matthew Winkler story – and I saw it on a special on MSNBC or something and I was sitting with my parents,” said Cronin. “I remember turning to them and saying, ‘This is a musical,’ and they were confused. To me, anything set within in the Church sings. There’s so much music, and I felt like the stakes for the characters really sang. ‘Til Death Do Us Part is about the role of a woman in religion. What does it mean to be a mother; what does it mean to parent; and what does it mean to be a son; all within in the confines of religion. It’s really about the power of truth,” says Cronin.

Stephen Brotebeck, Associate Professor of Musical Theatre chose to direct ‘Til Death Do Us Part as the first project of the New Musical Initiative. “We had over a hundred submissions from all over the world for this program, this was one of the finalists, and we fell in love with it! It checked every box that we needed to check. After interviewing Bobby and Caroline, we felt like that they would be a good fit for working with the students,” said Brotebeck.

On November 9, 2018, ‘Till Death Do Us Part was presented as a world-premiere staged reading. The cast of twelve learned the entire script and score in just one week. 

“The process has been awesome,” said Brotebeck. “It’s been like a freight train that hasn’t stopped. I think we’re getting an immense amount of work done and what I love is how much collaboration has been going on. Creating these newly developed characters in such a short amount of time is really exciting, I love creating new worlds that haven’t been discovered yet.”

“It’s been incredibly exciting to have the opportunity of an extended rehearsal process,” said Prugh. We had a whole week of getting to hear things more than once, getting to hear changes—that luxury is not something readily available to you in New York.” 

According to Bobby Cronin, the hardest part of creating ‘Til Death Do Us Part is the actual rehearsal and producing process. “The drug of it all is the writing process, and the most difficult part of it is how do we shape it,” he said. “The craft is a beast unto itself, but finding places to play is the hardest because it’s money. Who’s going to pay for it? The gestation process for a musical is ten years. Watching the actors grow so quickly into the material ... and to have it realized, that’s been the most exciting for me,” he said. 

So far the production team has focused on producing a successful staged-reading, however the process is just beginning. An upcoming staged workshop will lead to a world premiere, fully staged production in 2020. “This will be the first physical production of the show working with all the student designers, creating lighting design and scenic design, and we’ll discover in the workshop how this show moves and transitions from scene to scene, which is super exciting,” said Brotebeck.

Prugh and Cronin want‘Til Death Do Us Part to encourage the audience to think critically about issues going on in the world. “The subject matter is really going to make people think. We’re not here to say I want you to feel this way or think this way. It’s to provoke the thought, to start conversations,” said Cronin. Prugh agrees. “We have a lot of different opinions within the show.  We’re not trying to deliver one message even when we are trying to talk about the power of the truth to generate conversation.” 

The content within this article has been edited by Lizbeth Persons.

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