Musical Forum’s production of “Fly By Night,” a dark-yet-touching comedy musical, played five shows over three nights in Alumnae Hall this past weekend.
Written by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock, “Fly By Night” tells the story of six characters who cross paths in New York City during the Northeast blackout of 1965. The musical “explores the connections between these individuals” and examines the role love, grief and fate play in ordinary lives, according to the show’s description.
“It’s about dealing with loss and finding signs, because everyone's sort of searching for meaning. … It's about fate and the incomprehensibility of that,” said director Lia Ortner ’25. “A lot of it is driven by grief in a way that the text kind of intentionally doesn't acknowledge for a good portion of the show.”
Assistant director and stage manager Fifolu Akinola ’24 added that the play addresses “how we can live our lives, even if there is just this destined journey that we're going to go through.”
“Fly By Night” was well-received by audience members, who gave the show standing ovations on all three nights. “I personally loved it,” attendee Lizzy Wu ’24 wrote in a message to The Herald. “It was really well cast. Everyone was so talented and did great in their roles. The plot was really interesting, and the production quality was really great!”
‘It’s pretty timeless’
“Fly By Night” navigates a love triangle between two sisters — Daphne, an aspiring actress played by Marina Benson ’24, and Miriam, a waitress with a passion for astronomy, played by Ellie Leibner ’24 — and a sandwich-maker whose mother recently passed away.
The show uses rock music to illustrate the characters’ passions and regrets. To Benson, “Fly By Night” illustrates “how music can bring people together and provide comfort in times of need.”
Though the show takes place in the mid-1960s, its message translates seamlessly to the present day, Ortner said. “It's pretty timeless.”
Benson echoed this sentiment, pointing out, “blackouts still happen. People still get into weird, interpersonal relationships that have lots of connections. The web grows larger every day.”
“I want other people to see (the show) and be like, ‘Wow, this is about me,’ ” said Ortner. “I really see myself in all of the characters all the time.”
According to Ortner, the show pushes two major messages in particular: “Just do what makes you happy if you can’t control your fate, and life is not the things we do but who we’re doing them with,” she said, echoing the final line of “Cecily Smith,” one of the show’s central songs.
Both Ortner and Benson acknowledged that much of the show’s humor comes from the way it uses caricatures to demonstrate a deeper message. For Benson, it was difficult to juggle portraying a character who played into cliches and was also a “real person experiencing real tragedy.” Benson said that she was able to portray a more grounded Daphne by drawing on the commonalities between her and the character.
“A lot of the show is very silly and jokey,” Ortner said, adding that part of her intention as director was to “play up the moments of humor — which I really enjoy and I think land well with audiences we've had so far — but also convey that there is a gravity to some of the themes.”
‘Simple and intimate’: Building the show
Ortner first saw “Fly By Night” in 2017, though she had been listening to the show’s score beforehand. “I’ve loved (the show) for so many years,” she said. As a first-year, Ortner initially proposed that Musical Forum produce the show in October 2021. Though her initial proposal was rejected, Musical Forum approved the show last spring, allowing Ortner to spend the summer forming her production team.
“There's a lot about (the show) that makes it well equipped for college theater,” Ortner explained, citing the seven-person cast as one benefit. “I like that the music is really catchy, really exciting and new but also is fairly simple and really stays with you. I like that it doesn't call for an insane overblown production and you can keep that kind of simple and intimate.”
Auditions for “Fly By Night” occurred at the end of September and rehearsals began the first week of October. “There were some difficulties negotiating with the University for space. We ended up getting a kind of slow start,” Ortner said.
Despite facing initial challenges, auditions for “Fly By Night” went well, according to Benson. Auditioning was “really fun for me,” she said, adding that preparations for the show as a whole were “pretty stress-free.”
Ortner added that, though she, Akinola and music director Luca Iallonardi ’25 thought they would have to spend hours debating who to cast, the decision came easily in the end. “We went through the list and we were all like, ‘No, this is our cast.’ And we had a real show,” Ortner said.
Finding community, overcoming challenges
“Fly By Night” was Ortner’s first time directing a show outside of a small project for one of her classes, though she had previous experience as a stage manager. “It was scary and I often felt very underprepared,” she said. “But Fifolu and the cast were always really great about covering where I fell through a little bit and I'm really grateful to them for that.”
Drawing in audiences also proved to be a challenge for Ortner, who said that many community members had not heard of “Fly By Night” before. “We had to do a lot of the work on our own to get people really excited about the show — getting people on the production team, getting people to audition and getting people to come see it,” she said.
Additionally, Benson said that she contracted COVID-19 in late November, limiting her opportunities to rehearse. The day before “Fly By Night” opened, Benson got another virus, which she described on Saturday as having “some impacts on my voice but … mostly manageable.”
She mentioned that while the virus made singing “challenging, to say the least,” it taught her “a lot of vocal health skills.”
By Sunday, Benson’s sickness had gotten worse, which prevented her from acting in the final performance. Ortner, despite having never rehearsed the part, played Daphne in Benson’s place.
Initially, Ortner and her crew were considering canceling the show’s final performance. But after postponing the show’s start time by 30 minutes, Ortner was able to step in, using her past knowledge of the musical to play the role without mishap, while Leibner sang for her backstage.
“I think we all came to consensus that (Ortner) would be the best option because she knew all the dialogue, miraculously,” Akinola said, who added that the last-minute change created “a greater sense of camaraderie” among the cast and crew.
“I love this community,” Akinola said. “I love the people that I've met.”