Filichia Features: Kids at Play – on Broadway

Filichia Features: Kids at Play – on Broadway

On the list of things that people fear most in life, you’ll always find “Getting up in front of a crowd and speaking.”

A hundred or so New York City tweens and teens conquered that fear long ago. The antidote was their appearing in Junior versions of Broadway musicals at their middle schools and high schools.

Now today on the morning of May 19, these kids will speak, sing and dance in front of more people than ever before while doing a production number from their shows. Better still, the audience of hundreds that they’ll be facing will be in a Broadway house: the Broadhurst Theatre, where Mamma Mia! performs eight times a week.

This is “The Shubert Foundation / MTI Broadway Junior Student Share Celebration” -- although The Shubert Organization, The New York City Department of Education/Office of Arts and Special Projects, iTheatrics and ArtsConnection deserve some of the credit, too.

While we’re waiting for the show to begin, I speak to Steven Tennen, the executive director of ArtsConnection. “These kids’ directors, musical directors and choreographers are all regular classroom teachers,” he says. “One might be a math teacher who studied theater in college while another is an English teacher who has a rudimentary knowledge of choreography. We then provide professional project managers and an advisor to each participating school. They give the teachers the skills and advice they need to mount a production beginning with how to put together a schedule. They learn how to surmount individual challenges from ‘How do I block this scene’ to ‘Where can we go to rent stage lighting?’

“iTheatrics,” says Tennen, citing the organization that centers on musical theater education, “conducts a series of professional development workshops for the teachers to help them with set and costume design, staging and music. This intensive investment in the production teams builds program capacity and ensures success well beyond the initial life of the program.”

It’s working. We’ll soon see that the teacher from Peace Academy who’s staged “N.Y.C.” from Annie JR. has two girls stand next to each other and position their arms to create a heart worthy of an “I Love NY” ad. Nice ‘n’ creative!

Before that, however, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña takes the stage and agrees. “We’re spending $20 million to see that all kids – particularly middle school kids – get this opportunity. We like when school performers are recognized by their peers when they walk the hallways. Art makes you feel good about yourselves. And teachers, you’ve saved more than one life.”

(You bet.)

Freddie Gershon, chairman and CEO of MTI, tells the kids to “get up here and milk it for as much as you can by telling everyone” – here Gershon adopts a side-of-the-mouth delivery that implies matter-of-factness – “‘I was on a Broadway stage.’ How many adults would love to be up there and be doing what you’re about to do?”

Robert E. Wankel, the president and co-CEO of The Shubert Organization has the best job: he gets to introduce no less than Denzel Washington who’ll host the proceedings. Of course the screams of approval and appreciation Washington gets are nice rewards, but still: may Washington live to be 100 and then have a penthouse suite in heaven for doing this gig so early on his one day off from A Raisin in the Sun. Washington’s presence gives validation that what these kids are doing is worthwhile and, shall-we-say, cool.


Each of the 19 schools has chosen a student or two to introduce the production numbers. So while the girls from MS145X Academy for Creative Education & the Arts turn out to be splendid in announcing “One Jump Ahead” (Disney's Aladdin JR.), one baldly veers from the script to say she’d like Washington to take a picture with her. The star bursts onto the stage and hugs both her and her co-host. Of course, two selections later, that spurs the girl from Village Academy (who introduces “There She Goes” and the title song from Fame JR.) to say that she’d not only like a picture but also an autograph. But that’s where Washington draws the line and stays off-stage.

After all, the kids are supposed to be the stars today. And they are.

Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change’s “Mama Will Provide” (Once On This Island JR.) has a TiMoune who knows enough to snap her head forward on the song’s final note. The Tracy Turnblad in Collaborative Arts Middle School’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat” (Hairspray JR) is a natural dancer whose legs seem to be made from Silly String. The high-five she gives a castmate is undoubtedly a choreographic move they’ve rehearsed many times, but there’s a silent subtext of “This is going great, don’t you think?”

Spring Creek Community School’s “Biggest Blame Fool” (Seussical JR.) shows a true diva-in-training who gets the audience to applaud in rhythm. When PS 23Q does “Do the Circulation” (Schoolhouse Rick Live! JR.), some adults exude as much enthusiasm as Ms. Darbus did when she first heard Kelsi’s music in High School Musical.

As the lights come up for IS 364, Gateway Intermediate School to do the title song from Dear Edwina JR., one young man’s smile matches the wattage that’s illuminating him. Finally the time is here! Now it’s really real! How wondrous to see kids of all shapes and sizes working together. Even those who start off tentatively improve during the number as those butterflies in their stomachs die quick deaths. More secure kids give the less certain ones looks of encouragement, and soon those girls and boys display shy smiles that reveal they know they’re succeeding.

Is every kid magnificent? No, of course not. And yet, no matter how talent-impaired a student is, he or she never ruins the number. This is one of the few times that the chain is stronger than its weakest link.

But now and then we see someone such as the little boy in Lyons Community School’s “We Dance” (Once On This Island JR.). He comes forward to sing and suddenly audience members find their eyes pop open wider than ever before and find their heads jolt forward – because the tiny lad turns out to have a voice that fills the Broadhurst and probably reaches the Shubert next door. He gets spontaneous applause, but he won’t be the only one to get such a reaction as the morning continues.

The teachers offer across-the-board non-traditional casting. Whites populate Lyons’ “We Dance” and blacks dominate in Dr. Gladstone H. Atwell Middle School 61’s “Tradition” (Fiddler On The Roof JR.). The colorblind casting supports that famous line that a Tokyo theatergoer once said about Fiddler's universality: “I don’t know how this could have been a success in America. It’s so Japanese!”

Two schools that each do a selection from Guys And Dolls, JR. offer different non-traditional casting. P.S. 83 Donald Hertz Middle School’s “Luck Be a Lady” has female dice-rollers among the males; IS 109, Jean Nuzzi Middle School’s “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” has a girl playing Nicely-Nicely Johnson. She does more than nicely by it, for when she sings the lyric “Someone save me,” she does it unlike anyone on any cast album or the soundtrack. This girl makes it her own, and there isn’t any bigger compliment than that.

We’re reminded of how musical theater teaches history, too. When MS 584 does “I Know Where I’ve Been” (Hairspray, JR.), some kids hold picket signs that say “Integration 4Ever” and “End Segregation Now.” Now they can better appreciate the wars their forebears fought for them.

As for costumes, Global Technology Preparatory’s “Oh, the Things You Can Think!” (Seussical JR.) has each kid in a different colored outfit while IS 109, Jean Nuzzi Middle School’s cast members all wear Harvard-crimson-colored T-shirts. MS 22’s eleven students who perform “Interplanet Janet” (Schoolhouse Rock Live! JR.) have appliques on their T-shirts to identify Janet, the Sun, and the nine planets. (Scientists have come to exclude Pluto, but MS 22 doesn’t.)


There’s also a video presentation in which we meet 30 middle schools in all five boroughs. Interviews include one with teen idol Nick Jonas, who says that he wishes he’d had this program when he was a kid. A student says that musical theatre allows him to be himself. One teacher says “Children want to be a part of something” while another points out that “This production is a cure for peer pressure.” Yet another notes that “a kid who’s had behavioral problems becomes an angel.” And while she might mean Angel Schunard in Rent, chances are she’s commenting on conduct. Better that kids be on stage flexing their shoulder blades instead of on the street flicking switch blades. When MS 447 joyously proclaim they’re “The Nicest Kids in Town” (Hairspray JR.), they’re telling the truth. The girl who’d just introduced the selection convinced us of her claim that “We’ve created a Hairspray family.”

Peter Avery, the director of theater for the New York City Department of Education, brings out two of the program’s graduates. Soryana Jean-Baptiste admits that she was very shy and became involved in hopes “that this would get me out of my shell.” The confidence she exudes shows us she’s shed it. Jose Williams tells of “the joy and excitement” he’s felt and how he plans to become a professional performer.

Others, through their performances, subtly let us see that they view this Broadway appearance as only their first. Even their hearing the lyric “Ours is the hardest profession in the world” in both Academy for Culture and Scholarship’s and New Heights Middle School’s and Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship’s “Hard Work” from Fame JR can’t discourage them, for they prefer to believe what East New York Middle School of Excellence’s lyric from the same show says: “You ain’t seen the best of me yet.”

Curtain calls range from formal arms-in-front-of-waist bows to dainty curtseys. It’s such a great program that even the graduates can’t stay away. Thus, the “old” kids constitute “The Shubert Foundation/MTI Musical Theater Ensemble” – “It’s our graduate school,” says Avery – in which four boroughs are represented: Brooklyn (MS 57 and MS 442), Queens (MS 72 and JHS 185) and the Bronx (PS/MS 04). As the grads sing “Freak Flag” from Shrek JR., we see kids who had an appetizing taste of being on stage and now want to stay around for the whole meal.

Denzel Washington comes out to wrap it up, causing kids to rush him with the speed that defensive linesmen use when preparing to sack a quarterback. Washington manages to remain upright in what may make the Guinness World Record Book for the groupiest of group hugs.

And yet, whether the kids believe it or not, meeting Denzel Washington isn’t the greatest event that’s happened to them today. They’ve once again defeated that fear of getting up in front of a group. Now imagine how much easier they’ll find surmounting subsequent fears. Yes indeed: that’s what musical theater can do.

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