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W&M musical theatre director ready for busy holiday season

  • Phaedra McNorton
    Musical theatre director:  It’s been a busy fall for Phaedra McNorton with W&M’s staging of “A Chorus Line” and preparation for winter holiday performances in her other roles in the local community.  Photo by Kristina Sherk
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Phaedra McNorton has a unique vantage point when it comes to performance at William & Mary.

She goes back and forth between the music and theatre departments, where she manages the music for all productions. It’s been a busy fall for McNorton with W&M’s staging of “A Chorus Line” and preparation for winter holiday performances in her other roles in the local community.

“A Chorus Line” was a challenge for all involved, but McNorton said it was a chance to showcase some of W&M’s talented dancers in a theatre production.

“It’s difficult for the singers rhythmically and harmonically at times,” McNorton said. “So it’s hard rhythmically, and not only that, it’s 75% dancing. So that’s what’s really hard, is the dancing.

“I taught all of the vocals and Laurie Wolf, the director, worked on their monologues and the blocking between the dance numbers, and then they just went dance, dance, dance, dance. My part was easy. The dancing is the hard part.”

McNorton, lecturer in musical theatre, became the university’s musical theatre director in 2015. She teaches voice, which is only fitting since she has spent her life as a singer.

A native of Mobile, Alabama, McNorton was classically trained at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She performed professionally for years before deciding she wanted to stop traveling and stay closer to home.

“Singing is all I’ve ever done,” McNorton said. “I didn’t necessarily like it or dislike it. But when I was six, my mom put me in voice lessons because my kindergarten teacher told her that I should get in voice lessons because I carried a good tune. So it was all I ever was, a singer.

“I think I didn’t love it at first because I felt a little pushed, and then I loved it and it is who I am, and I’m most happy doing it. Classical music is my first love. I went to conservatory; that’s what I’m trained in. But I love musical theatre, too. It’s just two very different genres; the demands are different for both. One is very technical and one is interpretative.”

In Williamsburg, McNorton previously worked at Busch Gardens in the entertainment department where she did casting and rehearsals with singers for all of the mainstage shows. Her lengthy local performance career has included numerous events, and she continues to perform regularly as well as to do quite a bit of private voice coaching.

McNorton has been the music director at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church for 15 years and is preparing for the holiday lineup there for this year. She will also be the mezzo soprano soloist for Handel’s “Messiah” at Williamsburg United Methodist Church.

“I love holiday music,” she said, adding that “O Holy Night” is her favorite to sing while Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” is her favorite to listen to because it reminds her of her childhood.

McNorton may be one of the people who will be most thrilled when the new Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall and music building open right next to each other. She can easily go back and forth, and she said it should be better for both departments to have closer proximity to one another.

“Before I got here, we didn’t have a lot of crossover,” McNorton said. “And I worked really hard maintaining these relationships here in music, trying to get these students involved with theatre.

“Because before straight theatre was more the focus, and we couldn’t get any of the singers. We have amazing singers, but we couldn’t get them to go to theatre. So I just worked really hard to try to get it mixed.”

The same goes for dance, as well, with an effort made to involve Orchesis dancers in “A Chorus Line” and the hope that the dance department moving into the new PBK will add to the performance possibilities.

“When you see things happening — you see shows rehearsing — it’s inspiring,” McNorton said.

Up next for her will be the new COLL 400 Musical Theatre Performance Seminar course in the spring. Students will rehearse in class the musical theatre piece “Songs for a New World” written and composed by Jason Robert Brown and perform it as a culminating activity.

Specific to the skills involved will be teaching singers how to perform a song monologue of more than three minutes, according to McNorton.

“You have to stretch it out; that can be challenging if you’re not used to working with singers,” she said. “So this is being able to really refine the singers and show them what it’s like in the real world. It’s supposed to be closest to a professional experience that we can offer.”