PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Sarah Ellis has had the rare fortune of carving a career out of a passion that has driven her since childhood.
Setting the stage with both parents as music educators, the Platteville native cut her teeth as a dancer with the Dubuque Academy of Ballet. She then combined it with her loves of singing and acting, immersing herself in musical theater at Dubuque’s Grand Opera House.
Since then, Ellis has gone on to earn a degree in the art form from Penn State University’s musical theater program. She even joined the Broadway national tour of the musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 30-year-old now living in New York said the effects of longtime theater closures have resulted in a rapid dissemination of her beloved Broadway industry.
That hasn’t stopped her from what she called “relentlessly creating.”
“We’re all doing what we can to stay creative and connected right now,” Ellis said in a phone interview. “A lot of that has meant exploring new formats and learning how to make our art happen in new ways.”
Ellis’ answer is MT Shorts, an initiative she helped to establish prior to the pandemic taking hold. Its goal is to provide a vehicle for emerging musical theater writers to have their work showcased through the medium of short films.
It sees Ellis stepping into the role of producer, alongside Greg Kamp.
“The old school way of up-and-coming musical theater writers having their work seen and making its way to Broadway doesn’t work the same way it used to,” Ellis said. “We thought, ‘What if we created a platform for emerging artists through musical theater film shorts?’ There has been a renewed enthusiasm and popularity for musicals on film. Why not celebrate that and, at the same time, have this space for new and emerging writers to shine?”
With COVID-19 continuing to wreak havoc on live events and with a massive shift to virtual offerings in response, MT Shorts has embraced another mission in keeping musical theater alive and well.
It will host a premier party in honor of its latest musical short film, “High School Zoomsical,” at 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15.
Presented courtesy of the virtual venue All Together Now and sponsored by Harmony Helper — a digital rehearsal room — it will feature an interactive high school hallway where users can meet and chat and a variety of classrooms where visitors can test their musical theater knowledge with trivia, mix drinks and take in livestreamed performances.
The lineup boasts an impressive roster of Broadway talent, including Ryann Redmond (“Frozen,” “If/Then,” “Bring it On”), Alan Wiggins (“Pretty Woman,” “Beautiful,” “The Lion King”), Kay Brown (“Betches”) and a company of 50-plus ensemble members.
It was penned by Drew Fornola (“VeggieTales Noah’s Ark,” “STRAIGHT”), directed by Broadway Unlocked’s Jessica Ryan,
choreographed by Kate Rose Bailey (“Frozen”), music directed by Jeremy Robin Lyons (“The Sound of Music”) and features production design by Matthew Solomon.
Also appearing as a featured dancer will be another Platteville native and childhood friend of Ellis’, Sydney Ruf-Wong.
“It’s an opportunity for people to have a good time and enjoy a half-hour of livestreamed performances from some incredible Broadway stars,” Ellis said. “And for the first time, distance isn’t a barrier, so I’m able to showcase this with people back in my southwest Wisconsin and Dubuque homes. That’s been the silver lining during this pandemic.”
Aside from the capability of connecting across the country, early efforts also have netted MT Shorts an honorable mention at the 2020 Zoomtopia Innovation Awards for how the production company used Zoom to create a movie musical and its efforts to keep fostering original musicals while theaters remain shuttered.
“It breaks the mold of the conventional way to get to Broadway,” Ellis said. “But it’s also keeping musical theater lovers connected in a new and innovative way.”
Admission to the event is free via mtshorts.com/signup; however, donations will be accepted, with proceeds benefiting the Fund for College Auditions, which supports high school students aspiring to study musical theater.
“I was very fortunate to have been able to have the opportunities I had, but it can be more challenging for others,” Ellis said. “Musical theater can be a difficult and costly thing to pursue. So, it’s especially cool that this is helping to support a good cause for students who hope to go on and study musical theater.”