In third grade, students embark on an in depth study of San Francisco. They take field trips to explore the city’s natural spaces, historical landmarks and varied neighborhoods. As a culminating event, the third graders perform a San Francisco-themed musical in the spring.
Recently, MCDS music teacher Maggie Harth collaborated with Debra Barsha, a Broadway musician, to create a new musical for the third graders to perform —“The Wild Parrots of San Francisco.” Inspired by the parrots that make their home in and around Telegraph Hill, the musical was performed for the first time in April.
Maggie shared details about creating the musical and the task of teaching 60 third graders how to act, sing and dance like wild parrots.
How did the idea for the musical come about?
The third grade teachers asked me to write a musical for the entire grade to enhance their year-long San Francisco study. I thought it would be fun to look at San Francisco through the eyes of a bird. This got me thinking about the 2003 documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.” The movie was about the fate of hundreds of parrots who were captured and taken from their native land in South America to be sold as pets in San Francisco. Many of the parrots escaped and made their home in Telegraph Hill. I decided to expand on this story and write a musical where the parrots relocate to San Francisco neighborhoods outside of Telegraph Hill. Since the story is about Peruvian parrots, I wanted to include Spanish language and Latin-flavored music.
How did the play tie into the third grade San Francisco curriculum?
In keeping with the third grade curriculum, I set out to look at San Francisco neighborhoods, gentrification, landmarks and natural commons. I wanted to create a San Francisco-themed, kid-friendly musical that addressed contemporary issues of discrimination, bullying, immigration, diversity of families and breeds, cultural pride and the real-life South American wild parrots who settled in San Francisco. I also wanted to celebrate San Francisco as a city that has led and continues to lead our country towards democracy and equality for all.
Tell us about your writing partner. She has an extensive background in the professional New York theater world.
My longtime collaborator and friend Debra Barsha lives in New York and currently works as the associate conductor and keyboardist for the Broadway show, “Summer,” about the life and music of Donna Summer. For 11 years before that, Debra worked on Broadway playing keyboards in the Tony award-winning musical, “Jersey Boys.” Debra and I previously wrote three children’s musicals, which were performed by MCDS students. I knew she would be the perfect collaborator for this project.
How did the two of you work together long distance to create the storyline for the musical?
We wrote the script and lyrics using Google docs and shared our musical ideas using voice memos, GarageBand and the music notation program, Finale.
I started by sketching out the storyline that would take place over three scenes. Each of the three third grade classes would be responsible for one scene and play a total of 22 characters.
Once the storyline was mapped out, I came up with the names of the characters and how they would relate to each other. I decided to have groups of parrots including old-timers, teenage parrot athletes, parrot musicians, fledglings, two sets of parents and two human beings. One family of parrots would be Blue-Crowned Conures and all the rest would be Red-Headed Conures. This was a good vehicle for having a subplot where the minority of Blue-Crowned Conures were bullied by the Red-Headed Conures. From there, it was possible to create enough parts for all 60 third graders!
How did you collaborate on writing the lyrics and music?
Debra and I decided where we thought the story needed a song to expand on the emotion of the scene and we came up with the song titles. We also wanted to have an opening and final song that all 60 students would perform.
Once we had the titles for the songs, I wrote the lyrics and shared them with Debra to set to music. She would write one section of the song and send a voice memo of herself singing and playing the piano. I would give her feedback on the phone or in an email and she would incorporate it as she continued to write the songs. We went back and forth like this until all five songs were completed. Debra then recorded herself singing and playing the piano versions on Garageband and would send me mp3s of the songs. We wrote out the sheet music for the songs on the music notation program, Finale.
[Below: Listen to the mp3 of “Friends in the Flock”]
What was the process for writing the script?
Before writing the script, we wrote the first song -- “Friends in the Flock” -- to introduce and flesh out the characters. Using my story outline and character names to guide her, Debra wrote the script and shared it with me in a Google doc to make edits.
We showed the script to third grade teachers Sarah, Steve and Emily, [Lower School Division Head] Stephanie Dietz and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Coordinators Karin Soriano-Bilal and Leslie Tran. They all had suggestions and feedback which we incorporated into the final draft. The process of writing the storyline, lyrics, songs and script took place between December and early March.
How did you introduce the play to the third grade students?
I told students the story of the real wild parrots that had been captured in their native Peru to be taken to San Francisco and sold as pets. The homeroom teachers showed students the “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” to familiarize them with the movie that inspired our new musical.
While we were still editing the script, Debra flew out from New York to work with the third graders for a couple of days in January. The students were excited to learn from Debra who gave them a fun introduction to acting and theatrical singing.
How did the students learn to sing, act and dance in the musical?
Debra recorded herself singing the songs and accompanying herself on the piano. She wrote out the musical charts on Finale and emailed me the files which I edited, often raising the key for the children’s voices. I learned the songs and taught them to the third graders.
In music class, I played a drama game to prepare the third graders for acting out the script. They learned to show emotion, and stay in character through secondary activity and body language. They also learned how to “cheat out” [position their bodies so that audiences can see and hear them better] and project their voices. Upper School drama teacher Amy Edelson choreographed all the songs. She taught the dances to the third graders during their music class over the course of two months.
Did the students give you feedback about their experience performing “Wild Parrots?”
I gave them a questionnaire that asked them what they learned about performing and about themselves. One student wrote they learned about acting that “you have to be out there and confident.” And another wrote, “When I’m nervous and I do it, I feel good about myself.”
[Photo Gallery: View images from "The Wild Parrots of San Francisco"]
Wild Parrots of San Francisco Production Crew:
Choreography: Amy Edleson
Lighting Designer and Visual Projections: Kevin Schoenbohm
Piano Accompaniment: Colin Hogan
Sets, Props and Costume Design: Erin Gallagher