SUM Theatre’s Oli Guselle revels in genres and musical storytelling

Guselle is the music director, composer and arranger for The Reel Whirled, SUM Theatre’s original Theatre in the Park play for 2024.

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This summer, Oli Guselle’s music is taking listeners on a tour through the ’90s greatest hits, the present-day digital world, and dozens of parks and green spaces all across Saskatchewan.

Guselle is the music director, composer and arranger for The Reel Whirled, SUM Theatre’s original Theatre in the Park play for 2024.

To tell the story about balancing online and off-line lives and the pressures of living up to digital identities, the entire SUM Theatre company brought ideas to the table.

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Then it was Guselle’s job to turn all the themes, melodies and notions into one cohesive score.

“During our ‘creation week’ in January, my job was to work with everyone else to collaborate and write as much music as we can,” said Guselle.

“Then for the next few months, between creation week and the actual rehearsal period, I was sifting through all this content that my colleagues and I had made, and was putting together all these little bits and pieces of songs to create fully-fledged arrangements.

“I also made all of the backing track arrangements — I composed those myself — and then, as the music director, my job was to teach this to the cast and work with them on their vocals and harmonies, and on any instruments that they were playing.”

The Reel Whirled
Megan Zong and Katie Moore hold a pose during a media call of Sum Theatre’s Theatre in the Park The Reel Whirled at Raoul Wallenberg Park in Saskatoon on May 13. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

To bring The Reel Whirled to life, Guselle reached a few decades back in time, finding inspiration in the pop hits, iconic genres, video game soundtracks and music subcultures of the ’90s.

They researched the kind of “cheesy, feel-good, fast driving” drums and horns they would need to build a ska song from the ground up, played with the “stripped-down guitars and brooding melodies” to create a “grunge, Nirvana-esque vibe” and even went back to some of the old computer games they remembered playing growing up.

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“(The play is) this online video game world with a super unique vibe, so it was very important to the writers that we would do this story through a ’90s lens,” they said. “It’s all about creating this video game feeling.

“And the character themes are very grounded in computer game esthetics. So I looked at all the old kinds of Barbie and Fashion Makeover and cooking strategy games that I used to play for hours, and got influenced by those backing track vibes.”

For Guselle, this was a dream job; a chance to embrace all sorts of different, distinct types of music and performance at once.

“I’ve always been interested in so many different genres; I would never be able to pick just one,” Guselle said. “When I went to the University of Toronto and got my bachelor’s in classical music … I chose that on purpose because I knew that getting a classical, theoretical base was going to be my best bet to be able to explore many different genres.”

And for SUM Theatre artistic director and The Reel Whirled co-director Mac Dawson, Guselle took the “tall task” of creating a ’90s, digital soundscape that would resonate for audiences of all ages, and brought the narrative to new heights.

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“There’s something in the story that feels very sleek and shiny and technological and bubble gum-pop, and at the same time is angsty and uncertain and goes in a grunge direction,” he said. “Oli was an absolute wizard with the music on this show. Being a music director is a tricky, selfless thing to do — making all these arrangements for other people to play with and perform and share — and it was a really big gift that Oli has given our ensemble this year.”

The Reel Whirled will tour through Saskatoon parks until June 14. Then, SUM Theatre will take the play on a northern tour from June 17-21, and will bring the play to Regina from June 23-28.

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