Filichia Features: The 11th Annual Shubert/MTI Broadway Junior Finale

Filichia Features: The 11th Annual Shubert/MTI Broadway Junior Finale

There were enough smiles to provide a decade’s worth of toothpaste commercials.

They came from the stage of Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, where Billy Crystal, and Hugh Jackman toiled in the early years of this century -- and where Ethel Merman and Bernadette Peters appeared during the last.

And yet, plenty of those who populated the stage weren’t even born when Jackman did The Boy From Oz here in 2003. For on May 17, 2016, The 11th Annual Shubert/MTI Broadway Junior Finale brought middle-schoolers from various New York City boroughs to West 45th Street.

“This will be in your memory bank for the rest of your lives,” said Dorita Gibson, the Deputy Chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education. Added Freddie Gershon, the CEO of Music Theatre International, “You will be doing what hundreds of thousands of people want to do: perform on a Broadway stage. Milk it,” he advised. “Tell parents, relatives, use Twitter and let everybody know that you really were on Broadway.”

Gershon then introduced Michael I. Sovern -- “my professor when I went to law school” -- who’s now the president of The Shubert Organization. He reminded us that “There is nothing to equal the thrill of a live performance.” That would be proved time and time again during the 100-minute show.

Next came host Andrew Keenan-Bolger, currently co-starring in Tuck Everlasting. “And we know,” he said, “that education doesn’t happen by magic.”

No – and that’s why 92 teachers from 19 participating schools were required to stage or support these songs and dances from musicals in the Broadway Junior collection.

One of the newest hits is Disney’ The Lion King JR. “Grasslands Chant” and “The Lioness Hunt” from The Angelo Patri School had the boy in the title role wearing an ornate headpiece not far removed from what Jelani Remy is currently sporting across the street at the Minskoff. The Lyons Community School’s “The Circle of Life” started its procession with a sure-footed performer who beautifully maneuvered her orange ostrich feathers. To quote a Cole Porter song, “What style! What grace!”

Such achievement was evident during Seussical JR. “Solla Sollew” from the crew at P.S./I.S. 30. The boy playing Horton sang “I’ve so much trouble finding my way there” in such in a clean and clear voice that the crowd knew it was hearing something special. The lad who sang “The back of the police station is out” in The Academy of Media Technology’s “The Oldest Established” found a different way of delivering the line that owed nothing to any of the 17 different recordings of Guys and Dolls. What’s more gratifying than observing a kid making it his own and not relying on an album as the “official” rendition?

The boy who started “Be Our Guest” from P.S./M.S. 5 Port Morris School of Community Leadership’s excerpt of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast JR. had to do it the hard way. He sang his first word before the music started, and had to be right on key when the prerecorded music came in. He did it perfectly – which is something even some pros can’t achieve.

As for the song itself, little time passed before the boys and girls in the audience couldn’t contain their enthusiasm and started clapping in rhythm. It was a tribute to a song they’ve known virtually all their lives.

Even more impressive was the students’ response when Corona Arts and Sciences Academy did “We’re All in This Together” from High School Musical JR. Now they weren’t content to just clap along; they sang aloud the title phrase each time it came around, which did indeed reiterate the song’s important message.

That brings up another asset of the program. Although many kids in attendance will never again be on a Broadway stage (or possibly any other), their being involved here has allowed them to learn how much goes into making a show. At the very least, they’ll be better audience members in the future.

We saw some non-traditional casting. P.S./I.S. 119 The Glendale’s “Under the Sea” from Disney’s the Little Mermaid JR. had a girl playing Sebastian. She was so magnificent that we knew why her director had the ensemble members part like the Red Sea so she could have most of the stage to herself. P.S. 23Q’s “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin JR. had a powerful-voiced girl genie. The song also reminded us of the residual education the kids acquire through musicals. Did they know the term “maître d” before they encountered it in this song? Probably not.

In a video sequence, some teachers who have worked extensively with the program spoke. “Kids want to be part of something,” one wisely noted; another declared “Theater eliminates the ‘I-hate-to-come-to-school disease’ and the ‘I’m-bored’ disease.” Said a third, “We had kids who had behavioral problems who, after being in a show, are now angels.” Peter Avery, the Director of Theater for the city, noted that some teachers who take on the task of staging a Jr. show are math or special ed teachers – ones who go above and beyond because they’re so dedicated.

Some students who had been previously graduated from Broadway, Jr. schools showed their dedication, too. Dozens returned to do “Shipoopi” from The Music Man JR. The accomplished way they danced reiterated that singing wasn’t the only achievement here. I.S. 96 Seth Low’s “What’s Up, Duloc?” from Shrek JR. showed amazing precision dancing. The split that a boy did on the stage got deserved “oohs” and proved that Mott Hall IV, in their “Hard Work” from Fame JR., indeed involved hard work. The directors from Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change knew how to create tension in making us wonder if the boy would “Kiss the Girl” as the song from Disney’s the Little Mermaid JR. urged. (For the record: he didn’t.)

The soloist in Global Technology Preparatory Middle School’s “There She Goes” from Fame JR. showed the leadership qualities that she’s attained. She turned around, gave a curt nod and started hand-clapping to cue the others. She’ll be getting her own hand-claps in the future, be it on stage or in a conference room.

Yes, appearing on stage builds confidence. At curtain calls, the hand-waves the kids gave the audience stressed how much confidence they had -- probably much more than before.

We saw everything from a musical grammar lesson through New Design Middle School’s “Unpack Your Adjectives” (from Schoolhouse Rock JR.) to three selections from Hairspray JR. The girl playing Penny Pingleton in IN-Tech Academy’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat” struck a dynamic pose worthy of a genuine star before she began her section of the song. Seeing so many kids from I.S. 14 Shell Bank doing “Good Morning, Baltimore” was enhanced when the lass playing Tracy sang “Don't make me wait one more moment for my life to start,” for we knew that it had started. Some moments after Hunter’s Point Community Middle School’s “Run and Tell That,” the lad playing Seaweed came out with such a dynamic “I can’t see” that the crowd erupted with pleasure. They knew they were witnessing a kid born with the musical theatre gene.

Lest anyone assume that a show nearing its 40th birthday has lost any luster, we got three selections from the still-popular Annie JR.: “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” was exuberantly performed by The Middle School for Marketing and Legal Studies some time after we’d heard “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” from Pablo Casals Middle School 181. There weren’t any cellos around, but there were boy orphans in the cast. The backs of everyone’s T-shirt stated “Shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.” It’s Miss Hannigan’s demand of the orphans, but here it instead served as inspiration to the performers.

And finally, as the eleven o’clock number – or shall we say, the noon number -- here was “N.Y.C.” from Spring Creek Middle School. These kids and everyone else in the Imperial should certainly celebrate New York City – for the town’s Department of Education is one reason they’re here. Bless them, The Shubert Organization and Music Theatre International for knowing what so many of the nation’s politicians need to know: we can save plenty of kids if we have the resources to stage musicals for them and with them.

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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