Filichia Features: Company with Children?

Filichia Features: Company with Children?

There were several surprises at the Music Box Theatre on Monday night, none of which had to do with Dear Evan Hansen.

In fact, Monday is the smash-hit musical’s night off, which left the house free to host The Third Annual Shubert Foundation High School Theatre Festival. The Festival spotlights the incredible theatrical work studied, developed and performed by dedicated NYC public high schools. The inspirational evening showcases the influence of full theatre programs in education, and how they impact not just students, but schools and communities as well. The evening also offers students the opportunity to view a life in theatre as a viable career option. 

Phil Weinberg, the city’s Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, told the crowd “From my 30 years working in high school, I’ve seen how important the arts are.”

Michael I. Sovern, president of the Shubert Foundation, agreed and was glad that the evening would “highlight the powerful role that theater plays in the lives of our children.”

Emceeing was Okieriete Onaodowan, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in Hamilton. That thrilled the hundreds of kids in the audience who can cite his lines and everyone’s else’s in the show.

Onaodowan – who’s chummily known as “Oak” – said “We’re here to support and show love to these amazing artists. I grew up in New Jersey, and I got to appear as a teen at one of its professional theaters. That gave me a taste that a career in the theater was possible. And now you have that chance because of great teachers, directors, choreographers, parents and peers.

Twenty-five high school theater programs were chosen to be here. Now we’d see 15-minute excerpts from five productions – three musicals, two plays -- that these schools had produced earlier in the school year.

The evening started and ended with shows you’d expect high-schoolers to do. The Music Man from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Long Island City began the night in splendid fashion; a gloriously sung Into the Woods by Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn concluded the festivities.

In between were the surprises. Angels in America showed that Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan is not afraid to tackle controversial subjects like the AIDS epidemic or gay themes. That was also true in Brooklyn School for the Arts’ Almost, Maine.

After that show finished, the expert band started playing “The Ladies Who Lunch” as the next school prepared to enter. What, were we now going to see teenagers do Company?

Indeed we were, courtesy of Susan Wagner High School from Staten Island.

Did the kids convince us that they were in early middle age? Of course not. Nevertheless, director Diane Zerega showed that Company may well be worth doing with high schoolers. It offers some valuable lessons that can benefit teens before they reach official adulthood.

For example, their witnessing stories of adults’ unhappy unions could resonate with them and keep them from getting married too soon – and therefore getting divorced too soon, too.

Also note that George Furth’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s score center on friendship, which all kids have experienced since their toddler years and will continue to know through old age. That Bobby so values his “good and crazy people, my friends” – and they feel the same way – shows that friendships should be cherished as National Historic Landmarks that should never be torn down.

Any teen has had the experience that Bobby has: being the odd man out when all your good friends are in couples. Whether Joseph Gottfreid, playing Bobby, has or hasn’t yet had that experience, the look of loneliness and longing on his face when he once again realized that he was the only one of his friends not to have a partner (in “Side by Side by Side”) was as good as any professional I’ve seen in the nine productions I’ve caught since attending the world premiere in Boston.

We didn’t see the sequence in which Bobby brings marijuana to Jenny and David’s house, but the school obviously did it when it mounted the entire two-act musical in January. Does the scene condone or even encourage pot-smoking? One could argue that Jenny’s making a fool of herself while under the influence could actually discourage kids from using drugs.

Some believe that Sondheim’s music is difficult, but the kids here had no problem handling it. (The students from Edward R. Murrow easily conquered Into the Woods’ ultimate tongue-torturer “It’s Your Fault.”) Gottfried held the seven-second final note of “Being Alive” with the ease and skill of a Tony-winning pro.

He was just one of dozens of boys who participated in the five-show festival. True, four girls had to become two couples in The Music Man’s “Shipoopi” but all the other twosomes were male-female matchups. Musical theater is now gaining interest from young males, and while we can point to the popularity of Glee or the male-heavy Hamilton as possible causes, perhaps the introduction of more challenging material -- – and such shows as Company -- is another reason.

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at