Fischer Barnett, a Muse Machine alum and Stivers School for the Arts graduate, is among seven theater students from across the country spotlighted in the original HBO Max documentary “Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020,” which premiered Dec. 17.
Co-produced by Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti (“Gypsy”) and Emmy Award-winning World of Wonder (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”), “Homeschool Musical,” originally intended to be a scripted musical, was inspired by Benanti’s #SunshineSongs social media campaign, which arose from her desire to support students whose spring musicals were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary provides a unique and expressive outlet for the diverse students, including a music video highlighting their artistry, experiences and perspectives.
“Working on the documentary was super exciting,” said Barnett, 18, a freshman in the School of Drama at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “The documentary talks about what the pandemic has done to us creatively, particularly how it has affected our mental health, and how we are (coping) with the current political revolution, particularly how it has shifted our focus. Working with Laura so closely has been such a gift. She’s a best friend and mentor. She’s making so many of my dreams come true. It was also super incredible to be given a platform to talk about my transition as a trans woman.”
The Brookville resident, who with remarkably impressive maturity at the age of 14 marvelously embodied Edna Turnblad in the Muse Machine’s outstanding 2017 production of “Hairspray,” says she began her transition last spring. In early August, on the first day she moved into her dorm, she was selected to participate in Benanti’s project. In the documentary, which includes her performance of Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over,” she credits her parents for creating a supportive environment and is also open about her years of self-hatred.
Credit: Photo: contributed by Paula Powell
Credit: Photo: contributed by Paula Powell
“When I began developing my narrative for the documentary, I spoke with Laura about how defining a moment it was for me to play Edna in ‘Hairspray,’ ” she said. “I was at my fitting wearing my fat suit and putting on my clothes and I was so enamored and in love with what I was seeing in the mirror. I was so confused because all my life I hated my body and I thought it was because I was fat. But it was the first time I was looking in the mirror and I wasn’t thinking I was fat. I was seeing a woman’s body. So that was a huge milestone for me. And being able to work with the Rubi Girls during rehearsals was such a blessing, especially to sort of be able to explore gender at such a young age. And throughout high school, I was able to play so many different female characters. Initially, I was always cast as sort of a joke (as to say) wouldn’t it be funny if Fischer played a woman. But (even in those instances), I always brought humanity to it. When I played Edna, I didn’t want to play her as a man in a dress. All of the roles I’ve played, including men, have taught me about who I am. It’s so much more acceptable for me now.”
The encouragement, love, friendships and acceptance Barnett received from Muse remains impactful. She acknowledges the difficulty of coming out when she was a freshman yet finding a special sense of security, the sheer ability to breathe and break free of environments that felt suffocating, within Muse as well as Stivers.
“My first year at Stivers I did Muse and those two combined felt like a brand new world for me,” she said. “I’m so grateful to everyone at Muse who trusted me when I was so young to play Enda because it was a risk. I was a newcomer and an awkward 14-year-old. I have so many great relationships from Muse because they created such a professional work environment. It felt like we were doing the thing we wanted to do and I’m so thankful.”
Looking ahead to a future in musical theater, Barnett stresses the importance of inclusion, especially her deep longing to see more transgender representation in theater. In fact, she craves the opportunity to reexamine one of the most famous musicals from Broadway’s Golden Age.
“I am so obsessed with taking older shows, which in their original context are extremely exclusive, and putting them through a trans lens, specifically ‘Funny Girl,’ ” she said. “There are so many outdated things about that show. For example, the song ‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’ is not the most 2021 (statement), but through a trans lens there is something really beautiful in it. I want to see a revolution of including trans people in the theatre industry because it’s something we’re not seeing at all. We’re a demographic that is completely out of the conversation.”
But for now, Barnett is taking stock of the value she has found in self-reflection with her family during the pandemic. And in doing so, she’s basking in the glow of simply living her best life.
“I don’t have to figure anything out,” she said. “I know who I am now and it’s great.”
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