U-M students' musical theater company goes viral with parodies of "It," "WandaVision," and more

A jukebox musical parody of Stephen King's "It," rehearsed in two weeks, spun out into a full-blown theater troupe that has drawn tens of thousands of views online.
Have you ever imagined Stephen King's creepy clown tale "It" as a jukebox musical parody?

Well, two University of Michigan (U-M) students from Saginaw did – and from that seed, they formed a hometown theater troupe called Northern Town Parodies (NTP), whose videos have garnered tens of thousands of views online.

Freshman Nina Groll, a communications and media major; and senior Jack Doyle, a theater design and production major, met in high school because they participated in the same theater troupe. Their moms became friends first, and Groll and Doyle eventually bonded over enjoyment of King's "It." They discovered that just about all their friends loved the classic horror novel, too, and they started imagining their theater friends playing the characters.

"We were like, 'Let's just do it,'" Groll says. "There's nothing holding us back from just doing what we want to do."

They assembled a small cast, rehearsed for two weeks, and held their first performance at Saginaw's Dawn of a New Day Coffee House in January 2020. 
Northern Town Parodies' Nina Groll.
"It was just supposed to be something fun that our friends did together, just because we wanted to," Groll says. "And then it really took off in the community. Afterwards, Jack and I both had people coming up to us and saying, 'That was so awesome. When's your next one? What are you doing next?'"

Of course, COVID-19 stopped the fledgling troupe in its tracks soon thereafter. But the protracted pause forced the company to take its time defining its identity and developing its next, more ambitious project. In the fall of 2020, the troupe became Northern Town Parodies, a name inspired by the Dream Academy song ("Life in a Northern Town") that NTP had used as "It"'s opening number.

"That song was just very special to us," Groll says. " … And we thought that this song that pays homage to where we're from and how we started was the right choice, because at the end of the day, our roots are very important to us."

NTP's follow-up show, "The Percy Jackson Parody!," premiered outdoors in June 2021 at Saginaw's Cafe 476. The show spoofed "Percy Jackson," a popular young adult book series by Rick Riordan.

"We spent a lot of time re-reading and researching to write the Percy Jackson show," Doyle says. "I think I re-read the entire series while doing it, and I had the Percy Jackson wiki up at all times so we could include all of these iconic fan things. It's great to see that it reaches younger fans as well as fans our age, who grew up with it."
Northern Town Parodies' Jack Doyle.
The 90-minute performance has been viewed more than 62,000 times on YouTube, and NTP currently has over 15,000 followers on TikTok. Groll attributes NTP's success in part to the fact that the troupe only parodies "things that we love."

"I think there's a more genuine humor that comes from poking fun at something that you have a genuine love for rather than something you dislike," Groll says. "... We really want this to be something for fans, by fans."

Once NTP was finally able to produce shows again, the troupe kept its momentum high by pulling together its biggest outdoor undertaking yet: "WV: The Parody Musical." The show inspired by Marvel's "WandaVision" superhero TV series debuted in July 2021, just one month after "The Percy Jackson Parody!" and four months after "WandaVision" ended.

"We knew it was kind of a time-sensitive thing to get up while people are still talking about it, while this style of humor that we realized we could put on it would still land," Doyle says. "So that one was really fast-tracked into our timeline."

More recently, NTP presented its first indoor performance – "Scooby-Doo: A Musical Parody!" at Bay City's Historic Masonic Temple – on Jan. 2.

"For a one-act production, we were looking for something that we could really strip down," Groll says. "And Scooby-Doo was appealing to us because it had those 30-minute episodes, so it would work for a one-act, and we could put our own spin on it. Also, we didn't necessarily need the big set or all the special effects that we needed for Percy Jackson and WandaVision."
Northern Town Parodies' "WV: The Parody Musical."
Scooby-Doo also allowed the troupe to cast a broader net in terms of audience. Doyle says Percy Jackson fans dominated NTP's fan base for a while after the Jackson parody debuted.

"But Scooby-Doo, in promoting it – it breaks past that boundary," he says. "So it's cool to see all of these new people engaging with the things that we've created."

This isn't the first time U-M students have made a splash online with musical parodies of pop culture phenomena. Team Starkid's "A Very Potter Musical," featuring future "Glee" star Darren Criss in a parody of Harry Potter, debuted in 2009, followed by "A Very Potter Sequel" in 2010. But NTP is forging its own path. Groll says she'd never seen "A Very Potter Musical" until this past fall, after hearing NTP's work compared to Starkid's a few times.

"It's amazing that they were able to do what they did, and it's really inspirational to see that come out of Michigan," she says. " … But we're in an age where what's funny is changing very quickly, so I think our sense of humor is different."

Groll also notes that Starkid had a music team to write original songs, unlike NTP.

"It's a goal of ours to eventually be able to move into that, but right now, we're having fun with the jukebox aspect of what we do," she says. "I think that opens up our shows to a less traditional theater-going audience."
Northern Town Parodies' Jack Doyle and Nina Groll.
Down the road, NTP may face logistical challenges. Four of the company's 20-plus members are currently U-M students, and a handful of others are attending other Ann Arbor-area colleges, but the rest are still based in Saginaw. "Scooby-Doo: A Musical Parody!" was easy for the troupe to produce while all members were home for winter break. But as the troupe considers expanding to produce shows in Ann Arbor or other locations, Groll says members are "definitely trying to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, this was built with a friend group."

"This was built with people who we're very close to, and who are very important in the creation of our shows," she says. "And we never want to leave them behind, because I think the community aspect of it is just as important as the creative aspect of our group."

Doyle and Groll won't divulge what they're working on now, but they hint that NTP might soon have big news to share.

"There's something in the works, and it's super-exciting," Doyle says. "But that's pretty much all we can say about it, because not everything is for sure yet."

What is "for sure," though, is that NTP is having a moment, and its members are enjoying every bit of it.

"Part of the reason I love to see parodies, what we do, is they point out problems with something without necessarily diminishing our love for it," Doyle says. " … But there's also something really cool for us, as fans, to get to be Percy and Annabeth [from 'Percy Jackson'], these characters we loved as kids. You get to dress up and pretend to be them in front of an audience for a few hours. You get to swordfight and do all these other cool things. … Who wouldn't want to do that?"

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

Doyle and Groll portraits by Doug Coombe. Performance photos courtesy of NTP.
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