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‘Traditions’ musical to showcase Marshall’s history


The Parthenon

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. —  Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the history of Marshall University will come to the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center’s stage in the form of a musical.

The cast of “Traditions: The Rise of Marshall” performs.
(Photo by Rick Haye | University Communications)

“Traditions: The Rise of Marshall” is an hour-long performance for incoming freshmen created to present the story of John Marshall, the founding of Marshall University, and prominent moments in Marshall’s history.

President Jerry Gilbert said the production is a powerful way to interact with Marshall’s past and help students connect to the university. 

“I just left thinking, ‘there is no university in the whole country that has anything like this,’” Gilbert said.

Jesse Nolan, visiting assistant professor of music and creator of the production, said the performance was commissioned by the Week of Welcome committee and inspired by ideas from President Gilbert.

“[President Gilbert] was integral in the conception of part of the show, and so it was nice to hear his feedback after the dress rehearsal we did a couple weeks ago and hear that he liked it so much,” Nolan said.

While the production was intended for each Week of Welcome in the upcoming years, Nolan said that he is excited to make his first original musical production available to a wider audience.

“There was a response to it apparently,” Nolan said. “So these extra performances on the eighth and ninth of September were specifically designed so that more students, more faculty, and also people from Huntington could come and check out the show. I was hoping that something like this would happen – that they would want other people to see it – and we’re going to get that chance next week.”

The show includes three sections, each focusing on a different aspect of Marshall’s story.

Nolan said, “The first part was this Hamilton-esque, the life of John Marshall, and really it only presents certain events in his life between 1777 and 1803… The second part opens with the founding of the university. We kind of fast-forward from John Marshall being a Chief Justice to him having a university named in his honor, so that middle section is from the founding of the university through the first hundred years…. And then we fast-forward again through the vehicle of the rainstorm of 1937 and we actually sort of blur the lines between the flood of 1937 and the evening of the plane crash in 1970. So the third part of the show really tells the story of the modern university, but we use the athletic program as a metaphor for that.”

Nolan said that although much of the musical features original songs, Huntington audiences will be able to sing along to a few tunes.

“We’ve used a couple things that people may recognize in the show. Of course we sing the “Alma Mater,” of course we sing “Sons of Marshall,” but the remainder of the music is all original and intended to tell you the story of why Marshall University is here, who its namesake is, and give you a little bit of information about the man and the place,” Nolan said. “It’s kind of an interesting story.”

Nolan said the production includes a cast of 12 actors and singers, many of whom are Marshall students and alumni, along with members of the Marching Thunder, cheerleading squad, John Marshall Fife and Drum Corps, and Marco.

“Something like this absolutely takes a village, and that’s what we had,” Nolan said. “This was a whole thing that started way back in March and has taken the combined efforts of dozens of people working all summer, and then tons of people who volunteered their time to pitch in helping me with research and photography and everything.”

Nolan said he spent many hours researching in Morrow Library, visiting the West Virginia State Museum, conducting online research, and reading John Marshall biographies to craft this production. 

“Not being from West Virginia, this was kind of an interesting task for me,” Nolan said. “I’ve learned a lot and become a very proud son of Marshall and it was really fun to tell a story that I didn’t know before I started telling it.”

Nolan said all of the photographs and newspaper headlines that serve as a backdrop for the performers are factual and sourced from either the Library of Congress or the Marshall libraries. Newspaper headlines, some of which are from the Parthenon after its founding in 1979, are a production design used to establish the timeline for scenes in the show.

“We decided we want to tell you the real story, with real pictures of the Keith Albee under water, with Morrow library up over the front door, and with real pictures Old Main with the dates on them,” Nolan said. “That’s sort of the most immediate part – all of the care that we took to source and craft the media pieces that you’ll see as sort of background, but have been very intentionally created to also tell you part of the story.”

Tickets will be available at the Joan C. Edwards Box Office 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m, Tuesday through Friday.

Caroline Kimbro can be contacted at [email protected].

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