In this interview, musical director Brendan Jennings describes the process of creating a twenty-minute musical theater show based on the video game Bioshock. The musical show was written as a show choir competition piece for the high school choir Powerhouse. The performance was a huge success in competition settings and attained international attention from media outlets and fans of both musical theater and video games.

John Burroughs High School of Burbank, California, has a long-standing tradition of musical excellence. In 2022, the competition show for the school’s Powerhouse choir took the form of a twenty-minute staged musical based on the video game Bioshock (2007). The show was set in the Rapture Ballroom for New Year’s 1959 and charts the beginnings of the city’s descent into the dystopian nightmare found in the game. Powerhouse’s set consisted of pre-existing songs arranged and adapted to fit the Bioshock theme. In this interview, Powerhouse’s musical director, Brendan Jennings, describes the process of creating this Bioshock-themed musical.

Brendan Jennings [BJ]:

Powerhouse is the most advanced choir at John Burroughs High School, which is a public school in Burbank, California, and I’ve been the director for the past sixteen years. The Vocal Music Association at John Burroughs was founded by my predecessor, Mary Rago. She was also my teacher. I went to the school. She brought show choir into the music program in the late ’70s. Powerhouse does all kinds of music, including classical concert repertoire, we do Broadway stuff, we do holiday programs, but we are obviously known for our spectacular show choir presentations. We try to challenge the kids and find interesting worlds and stories to tell, and we combine that all with pop music and singing and dancing. In the spring semester we learn what we consider our show choir competition show, which we then take on the road.

Tim Summers [TS]:

This show has been extremely successful, both with audiences and judges. You’ve done sets based on a great variety of different subject matter. How did the Bioshock idea come about?

BJ:

Our competition shows are designed by our artistic director, Jen Oundjian. She is also an alum of the program. She had been a few years ahead of me; she was one of my teachers who became a colleague when I took over as the musical director. She had a roommate for a while who was a big gamer, and she had watched him play the original Bioshock video game and was kind of fascinated with the aesthetics of it. She thought it was a really visually beautiful game. Not being into gaming herself, she just ended up watching her roommate, who also happens to be one of our choreographers for the show. She filed the idea away in her head because that was years ago. And then she pulled it out this year and decided, you know, this was the year to tackle that aesthetic. Jen always has a million songs that she wants to do. She brings them to myself and one of our choreographers, Dominic Matas, who’s the lead choreographer for the show. Dominic is also a gamer, so he was familiar with Bioshock, very excited at the idea. They taught me what the game was all about; I knew nothing about it. I was looking at pictures online, reading character descriptions and the synopsis of the game.

We settled on telling the story of this New Year’s Eve party, which doesn’t happen in the game but is referred to in the game as a sort of “the eve of the apocalypse” for Rapture. It’s a party and there would be musical entertainment. It gave us the chance to have a festive atmosphere, even though the game is dark, and then we can watch it kind of devolve through the night.

We are always designing shows for a lot of different audiences that we perform for at these competitions. There are auditoriums full of teenagers and they are a primary audience, but then, of course, we’re being judged by, a lot of the time, older folks that may not know the pop culture references that we’re doing. So we have to make sure that it’s entertaining in its own right, that that the singing is good, the dancing is good, that the show is a package. A lot of times we’ll get people who say “I have no idea what that was, but I liked it.” We’re going for that audience, while at the same time, people who actually are familiar with the topic that we choose in this case. The Bioshock gamers are so excited that they’re seeing this in a staged musical form.

TS:

Yes, and presumably, you need a concept that can accommodate all the things you want to show off with your performance and choir.

BJ:

Yeah. When I was in high school, [the sets were more like] five random songs, and it didn’t really have any sort of storytelling element. Now, for the last ten years or so, we can really use the use the drama and the emotion of a story to heighten the musical effect from the songs that we choose. We’re designing those things hand in hand to have the greatest impact on an audience, so that there are characters that you care about, action, conflict, people expressing wants and desires. I think this particular show really resonated well with our audiences—we got great reactions, and it did well with the judges. We had a rare undefeated season competing against some of the best choirs in the country.

TS:

How did you communicate the concept of Bioshock to the students? I imagine some would already be familiar with it, other wouldn’t be.

BJ:

We always reveal our set plans on a weekend retreat in the fall semester. We play the music for them and tell them the concept of the show. When we explained we were doing a Bioshock show, there was a small handful of kids that totally lost their minds! They were familiar with it and couldn’t believe it. And then there were a bunch of other kids who didn’t know Bioshock, and so we explained the concept of the show as best we could.

It’s a very organic creative process. When we start, we don’t always end up in the same place. Design-wise, it’s not a completely finished package [at that stage]. We tell them what we’re thinking, and then we start to explore it with them. In particular, this year, we asked them to design their own characters within the show. There were some auditions for some of the leading characters from the game like Sander Cohen, the Little Sisters, and Jasmine Jolene. But everybody else wrote a narrative of who their person was at this party, why they were there, why they left for Rapture in the first place, what their profession was, and so on. Everybody had to do enough research about the game to understand what your average person in this world would be about.

I think that’s what attracted Jen to the world of Rapture, this utopian haven for artists and weirdos and normalizing the difference. That’s who we are, making and giving kids a space to let their freak flags fly, as they say. Jen took each character description and designed the costume, one by one, for the kids. She created a Pinterest board for each kid with what she wanted them to look like. Some costumes we were able to find and purchase, others we had custom made.

The more they learned about the story, the more they got really deeply into it. A bunch of them started to play the video game after it! They’re like, “OK, now I gotta, like, go and see what this is all about!”

TS:

How did you structure your twenty-minute set, across the main numbers of the show?

BJ:

There are some standard show choir beats that you want to hit in your competition programs. We’re always looking for some type of beginning that is big and splashy—that would be “Proud Mary” here. And then sometimes if we’ve got exposition to do, we’ll add a prologue before that, which was really important for this show, to introduce all the characters [“Hey, Runner!”]. Then at some point, you’ve got to have a ballad. In California, the tradition is that it is sung a cappella. That is not a tradition everywhere in the country. Then we usually have some type of power ballad, with some incredible soloist, but that also moves along the story. And then you have to finish it, and we usually want some type of hard-hitting piece at the end.

We work out what the story needs to say and which characters we want. We went to the game for that. Obviously, without adding a bunch of dialogue, we’re not going to be able to tell a super complicated story. That’s the thing about show choir, is it has to be very simple. Because when you to try and get too complex with the story, you try to add dialogue or you really lean on those characters, then the ensemble really kind of fades away into the background. And that, for me, that’s not true to the genre. It is an ensemble medium, and though we do have soloists, I don’t want to see Jasmine Jolene or Doctor Tenenbaum singing seven solos and following around one person as they tell their story, while everyone else is in the background. You want the stakes to be high for everybody on stage. We have a lot of experience with putting together those shows, and then it’s a case of taking your concept idea and figuring out how to meld that together.

TS:

I think that’s particularly true at the end of the a cappella chorus number “Party Tattoos.” For me, the concept and music fuse so beautifully at this tragic emotional moment where Rapture is on the precipice. At the end of that, there’s an oasis of silence, where the audience is utterly engaged, before they applaud. It’s a beautiful moment in the set.

BJ:

Thank you, yes. The beauty of that moment is getting it to a point where they are executing the vocals technically at a very high level. And then you kind of have to throw that away and say, OK, now it’s just about the feeling and the story. And these kids don’t disappoint! It’s magical when these teenagers are bringing this very heavy, very dark, interesting emotional story to life. People don’t think that teenagers have that kind of depth and that kind of capability, and I think they’re perfectly suited, because they are just such emotional creatures and it all lives right on the surface. And it’s pretty easy to access it and they create magical moments.

TS:

And you had the songs arranged?

BJ:

We have a number of different people who we use as musical arrangers. We know their skills. We’re taking these songs and putting choirs where they did not exist. That can be done rather poorly—there are bad arrangements where choirs are shoehorned into places they don’t belong, or ways of singing in a very choral style on a song that seems wrong. Good arrangements definitely separate excellent show choirs from mediocre ones, and we’re very lucky.

TS:

Did you develop your principal characters and songs with particular students in mind?

BJ:

Yes, our rule is that you can’t pick a song unless you know you have someone who can sing it. So don’t pick “Proud Mary” if you don’t have a girl who’s gonna slay “Proud Mary.” Does that mean that there’s only one, and that she’s the only one? No, and we have many times picked things with students in mind, and then we go to auditions and it doesn’t turn out like that. But you’ve got to know if you’re going to do “Alone” by Heart, that you have somebody who can belt that high and can carry it off. And we actually have three or four girls who can do that. So we knew that that was gonna work. We have several girls who sounded great on “Proud Mary.”

TS:

The variety of the songs is really interesting. “Mr. Capgras” works so well in the context of the show, but it wasn’t a song I knew before.

BJ:

Yeah, me neither. Jen is more up to date on pop music, and now that people know us, former students, friends, recommend songs to her for Powerhouse. She spends a lot of time listening to music and making playlists. Then she chooses concepts like Bioshock—[and thinks about] what would fit Bioshock for narrowing that down.

TS:

What’s the makeup of the band?

BJ:

They are 50 percent pros and 50 percent students. The rhythm section, which is drums, bass, guitar, and two keyboards (for all the sound effects), those are all professional musicians. We have brass players that are from the instrumental association at our school, usually two trumpets, two trombones, alto sax, and tenor sax. They’re our very best players.

TS:

The set looks great. It’s a beautiful set, very evocative. How did that come about?

BJ:

Part of the reason that we did the Bioshock show this year is the backdrop. The backdrop is constructed from fourteen panels that we built with light bulb marquees and hammered metal and built to look like a 1920s/30s marquee. That was built for our 2020 show. That show was interrupted by the pandemic, and we only got to perform it I think three times. And the backdrop itself took us a while to figure out the programming. We built it from the wires up, and so it wasn’t till the last performance that we finally figured out how to do all of the visual effects. Jen said, “We’re going to use the backdrop again.” I said, “OK, but you just have to think of another show that makes sense with that backdrop.” And she said, “I already have one!”

We took the backdrop and distressed it. For the show that we did originally, we wanted it to look brand new, perfect and sparkly. But Rapture’s falling apart. The revolution is about to happen. Things were built in the 1920s and ’30s, but they’re getting old and rundown now. Two years of that backdrop, sitting in a storage bin, did a lot of the distressing work for us! But they repainted some things and they took out some light bulbs. If you look closely, there’s like light bulbs broken or missing. Little tiny details, but that’s part of it.

TS:

So how long do you have to do the whole project?

BJ:

Usually right about the time that the show is up and is done, we are in the design process for the next show. March, April we start considering what we might do next; by June, we know that we need to be actually pushing things forward and sending some finished song ideas off to arrangers. We pick dates with our costumer. She’s in Indiana, so she will fly out and spend a couple of days designing with Jen. [In June] we talk about our equipment setup, our lighting setup, what went well this year, what was a struggle this year, what we want to improve on, where can we possibly find the money to upgrade this or that. It’s my job to work with the parent boosters to come up with all the money that it takes to do these shows, which is not insignificant.

TS:

Bioshock, as you alluded to, is quite dark subject matter. It’s quite provocative. Was this something that ever crossed your mind?

BJ:

Oh yes, it most definitely crossed our mind! We realized that there were aspects of the game and story that we would have to tread carefully around, because we have a family audience. And we push toward the edge of what is OK. At the end of the power ballad, “Alone,” when Doctor Tenenbaum puts the mask on the first Little Sister and it goes downhill, representing the creation of the splicers, there was a version of it where she had a giant syringe, injecting this little child character! We were doing that in rehearsal for a while, and it was too much. So we edit ourselves down, where appropriate. But now we have a couple sizes of gigantic syringe props sitting around somewhere that never got used!

Lyrically in this show, we really went for lyric changes from the original songs. We don’t always change so many lyrics of the songs. At every show we changed another lyric here and there. At the beginning of the season, a little bit of the feedback was, “We don’t know who these Little Sisters are.” So we added some music and dialogue in the prologue with who they were. Clearly, older characters were after these young kids, and it seemed like a little too predatory, so we clarified that she was undertaking scientific experimentation. There were lyrics and blocking to make it clear.

TS:

Why do you think this set has had so much success? It’s been covered in news outlets and social media. This show seems to have permeated beyond show choir circles in interesting ways.

BJ:

I think the choice of Bioshock really resonated and excited people in a way that we didn’t fully expect. Bioshock is not one of those games that nongamers have heard about. It was the right show at the right time, and I think people are still really consuming a lot of media on the Internet right now, particularly with COVID quarantine. Combined with that, this story, this game that has a bigger, more aggressive excited following than I knew about. While we were in the process of creating the show, the news dropped about the Bioshock movie coming out, and that added to the fan interest. I hope that people enjoyed it and maybe they’ll watch next year’s show, even though it won’t be on a video game.

TS:

Why do you think that show choirs and projects like them are so important for students?

BJ:

I think that there are many ways to give kids the space that they need to express themselves and be themselves. It is fundamentally vital that students have that opportunity in in some form. Just because they are at that age, dealing with growing up in this this very challenging world that we’ve created for them, and it just seems to get harder and more intense, and the stakes seem higher and higher for each passing generation. It doesn’t necessarily matter how you do it, but show choir does it particularly well in my opinion, just because it is the melding of so many different art forms together. You don’t have to be the best singer in the world to participate in show choir, you don’t have to be the best dancer in the world, and yet there are opportunities for those students to shine. There’s space for those students who are helping create the world in the backdrop, for the kids who are on our tech crew who are building the technical aspects, who maybe don’t want to be onstage but want to be part of this team and group expression and have those opportunities. It’s a sport where there’s nobody on the bench. That’s really important. Everybody is participating. And most often huffing and puffing because it’s quite exhausting! Everybody gets to play a part. I have almost 200 kids in the program, they’re not all in Powerhouse, but they’re all getting to express themselves and have an artistic experience that is important at that age.

  1. “Hey, Runner!” by the Arcadian Wild, sung by Atlas

  2. “Proud Mary” by Tina Tuner/Creedence Clearwater Revival, sung by Jasmine Jolene

  3. “For the Departed” by Shayfer James, sung by Andrew Ryan

  4. “Pomegranate Seeds” by Julian Moon, sung by the Little Sisters

  5. “Mr. Capgras Encounters a Secondhand Vanity: Tulpamancer’s Prosopagnosia/Pareidolia (As Direct Result of Trauma to the Fusiform Gyrus)” by Will Wood and the Tapeworms, sung by Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine

  6. “Party Tattoos” by Dodie, sung by the Citizens of Rapture

  7. “Rapture” by Blondie (excerpt), sung by the Citizens of Rapture

  8. “Alone” by Heart, sung by Doctor Tenenbaum

  9. “The Letter” by the Box Tops, sung by Sander Cohen (and others)