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“In the Deep” musical brings together three generations of Willamette alums and celebrates the power of connection

by Sophie Cipolla,

The world premiere of Willamette’s fall musical — helmed by award-winning playwright E.M. Lewis BA‘94, composer Clarence Roscoe McDonald BA’23, and Director Carly Christensen BA’16 — has an unusual origin story. McDonald developed “In the Deep” with Lewis for his music senior capstone project. Now, the community will experience a tale of resilience, camaraderie and the uncharted waters of life — created by three Willamette graduates.

The journey to “In the Deep” began during McDonald’s senior year, which happened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor of Theatre Susan Coromel introduced McDonald and Lewis over Zoom to explore the possibilities of a partnership. Lewis — an award-winning and critically-acclaimed playwright, teacher, and opera librettist — brought her long and successful career to the project.

“Professor Coromel wondered if I might be able to let Roscoe use an existing play of mine as the book, or otherwise advise him,” Lewis said. “After we met, we decided that making something new together might be the best way to go forward.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

“It was a push and pull to figure out how big this could be and still finish it in a year,” McDonald said. The pair also had to overcome the challenges of collaborating over Zoom and did not meet in person until a year into the creative process.

Christensen said that McDonald and Lewis’s creative partnership was part of the appeal of directing the production. “It’s such a lovely example of community and of Willamette supporting its students both current and past,” she shared. Christensen received her MFA in Acting from Purdue University after graduating from Willamette and has a wide-ranging background in performance. Her experience and close ties to the Willamette Theatre department made her the perfect director of the show.

The central question that drove the show’s creators was: “How do we go on in the face of incredible hardship and impossible losses?” These themes have special resonance given the aftermath of the global pandemic.

Ultimately, though, the show is about friendship and the power of showing up for others. “That is a fundamental value for me. Although this particular group of characters are college-aged young people, it’s something that carries through a person’s whole life, if they’re lucky,” said Lewis.

“We’re only here on this earth for a short period of time, and we so often get caught up in the mundane. The moments that the characters of this show look back on are the moments where people take the time out of their day to prioritize connection,” McDonald shared. “I hope people come away from this show wanting to reach out to the people they know and love, and hold onto each other the best they can.”

Most importantly, though, “In the Deep” calls for people to be fearless in the name of connection, and to not be afraid of letting people know you love them. Lewis is struck by how much Willamette’s motto resonates with the themes of the musical they’ve written. “I’ve thought about that a lot: Not unto ourselves alone are we born. Yes to that! Still! Always.”

About the show:

What: In the Deep, a world-premiere musical by E. M. Lewis and Clarence Roscoe McDonald
Where: M. Lee Pelton Theatre, Willamette University
When: Oct. 26 — Nov. 12, 2023
Tickets: $5 - $15. Student and senior rates are available. Visit the Willamette theatre website for information and reservations, or write to

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