| LVC Music Grad Writing for Connecticut Theater Company
After graduating from Lebanon Valley College with degrees in music theory composition and percussion performance, Justin Rugg ’09 moved to Connecticut and immediately began auditioning for roles in local theater. He landed with Pantochino Productions in New Haven – a company that has now produced six of his original works.
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Upon auditioning for Pantochino, Rugg met director Bert Bernardi. Bernardi was in the process of writing a Christmas show, but his usual composer was unavailable. Rugg volunteered to read the script and take a shot at writing the score for his first musical. The result was “Teen Santa,” a punk rock musical about a kid who has superhero powers pertaining to Christmas.
“When I was at LVC, I learned classical composition, but Bert wanted it to sound raw,” Rugg said. “I said, ‘Let’s get a live band.’ We got a three-piece, local garage band. I had never written for guitar before, but by working with the band, I pulled it together.”
Rugg was a percussionist in high school and performed in the marching band, choir, orchestra, and percussion ensemble at LVC. His acting career included roles in Wig and Buckle productions of “You’re in Town” and “Fuddy Meers.”
As a student-composer, he wrote two woodwind pieces that remain on file at LVC: a duet called “Scenes from a Carnival” and “Quartet for Small, Furry Rodents.”
“I was always a theatrical, goofball kid. I was always putting on little shows in my house and showing my mom songs and scenes. I was always really enamored with the stage. I started being in plays in first grade, so it wasn’t entirely new territory by the time I got to college.”
Pantochino does not have a home theater. Instead, they take musicals on the road to venues around New Haven County. This year’s Christmas show, “Glitz,” is being performed at the Milford Fine Arts Center – a converted train station in Milford. The musical is Rugg’s fourth full-length score and second Christmas piece.
“I never intended to write a Christmas show in my entire life,” Rugg said. “It is one of the most daunting tasks that you can undertake. It is such a specific time of year and feeling for a lot of people. You want to evoke the right things without being ‘old.’ You want to also get your point of view across and be ‘new’ without being too ‘in your face.’ I loved writing it. You just want to do it justice.”
Rugg’s other credits at Pantochino include full-length musicals “The Brothers Grimm” and “The Groovie Ghoulies” and shorter summer camp projects about Aladdin and the Wizard of Oz for student participants ages 7–13.
Rugg has also staged two nights of original music produced by Pantochino, first at Firehouse 12 Cabaret in New Haven in February and later at The Duplex in New York City in March. The performance – titled “Predictable Heart: The Music of Justin Rugg” – featured a vocal performance by Broadway’s Jenn Gambatese, who joined Rugg on stage and sang a song he wrote specifically for her.
“I’m content,” Rugg said. “Right now, I’m writing an average of two to three shows a year. I’m working in a field that I wanted to be in that I studied for, which not a lot of people can say in this business. I get creative freedom and really have a good time.”
For those pursuing a career in music or theater, Rugg offers a few pieces of simple advice.
“Try out for everything you can,” he said. “Get your face and name out there and meet as many people as you can in the business. You also need to be as kind and patient as you can. People can only do as much as they can. As long as they’re trying, I like to keep a level head.”