Filichia Features: Welcome to the Junior Theater Festival Part 1

Filichia Features: Welcome to the Junior Theater Festival Part 1

Nothing’s officially happened yet. It’s 7:40 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 14, and the stage of the vast MTIShowSpace Theater at Atlanta’s Hotel Renaissance Waverly is empty. But the house itself is filling up, en route to accommodating nearly 3,000 people in its seats.

Conventions take place on a regular basis this enormous ballroom. But there is a profound difference this morning. About 90% of the attendees are children -- although we’ll soon see that they’re not just run-of-the-mill kids. They’re students of musical theater who have been brought here by involved parents and teachers so that they can perform for each other.

While everyone’s waiting for the official welcoming speech, some schoolmates chat, while others meet kids from other schools. There are plenty of young people from which to choose, for 64 organizations, from schools to after-school musical theater programs, have sent their best here.

One doesn’t hear the word “junior” very much used by families these days. For the last generation or two, sons haven’t been automatically named after their fathers. But if anyone thinks that “junior” is an endangered species, he’d find that here in Atlanta, the word is quite alive and well – at the sixth Junior Theater Festival.

What started nine years ago as a biennial event turned out to be so popular that it went annual in 2010. Indeed, the Junior Theater Festival has grown nearly five-fold since its debut in 2003 when 650 attended.

This year, tweens and teens from states as far-reaching as Maine and Wyoming are here, just itching to perform 15-minute segments from shows in MTI’s Broadway Junior Collection. Casts will appear before three adjudicators who’ll both praise what the kids have achieved and make suggestions that will help them create even better musical theater in the future.

The advice could prove especially rewarding for Mountain Brook Junior High School from Birmingham, Alabama. It plans to present High School Musical, Jr. this spring, so it’s using Atlanta as its out-of-town tryout. They suspect that after they hear what their three adjudicators have to say, they might just wind up with a more potent show.

Now it’s just minutes before Tim McDonald, the creator of many Broadway Junior musicals, takes the stage. The kids have been cooing whenever they hear a beloved show song coming over the theater’s sound system. But now there’s an especially gleeful burst from many when they hear the first notes of a familiar vamp. It’s Annie’s “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”

Some kids start clapping in rhythm to show their affection for this song that they’ve known since early childhood. They recall when relatives or babysitters showed them an Annie DVD or – even better -- took them to see a live production.

Other kids jump into the aisles and start replicating the choreography that they’d learned from teachers when they performed Annie, Jr. at their grammar and middle schools. And one young girl, sitting in an aisle seat, stands up excitedly and says, “If we ever do this show, I’m ready to choreograph.” She pulls another girl out of her seat and begins teaching her just what she has in mind.

Then Tim McDonald takes the stage. The look on his face expresses excitement, yes, but some amazement, too, as he looks over the assembled multitude. Eleven years ago, when he was brought into a meeting with Nick Manos, managing director of Atlanta’s Theatre of the Stars, and Freddie Gershon, chairman and CEO of MTI, he might not have thought that the Junior Theater Festival would reach these heights. But it has.

McDonald tells the crowd, “Because you’re here, you’ve already won.” Yes, this is a festival, but prizes will be awarded, ranging from outstanding productions to spirit to community service -- not to mention “Hardest Working Male,” “Hardest Working Female” and various “Freddie G” awards.

Before he closes, McDonald also tells the kids to take advantage of the Broadway Basement Store, set up outside the MTI ShowSpace Theater. “The proceeds go to under-served schools,” he tells them, causing many kids to turn to each other, as if to communicate, “Yeah, there are schools that aren’t as lucky as we are to have a great arts program.” Soon after, they’ll be looking over T-shirts (including one with an enormous likeness of the Frank Loesser commemorative stamp), bottles of “Holy” water from Sister Act, original cast CDs as vintage as The Music Man and as recent as Catch Me If You Can and lapel pins that celebrate Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Right next door is the MTI ShowSpace Lounge, where one can pick up complimentary CD samplers that offer 19 songs from Jr. musicals, or little bookmarks that say SMASH, in honor of the upcoming TV  series about the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical. NBC, the network on which SMASH will debut after the Super Bowl, is one of the generous sponsors of this year’s festival.

But before anyone leaves, McDonald urges that everyone wish each other well. As instructed, after the count of three, thousands simultaneously shout out, “Break a leg!”

In fact, the kids are so anxious to get to the rooms where they’ll perform that they literally run the risk of breaking a leg or arm, en route. There are seven performance spaces in all, each of which will see nine groups ply their entertainment wares during the next four and a half hours, interspersed with adjudicators’ remarks.

The rooms are named after characters in musicals: the Annie, Cinderella, Edwina, Flat Stanley, Golde, Horton and Jafar. Wouldn’t Fiddler on the Roof’s Golde, who shared a small house with husband Tevye and five daughters, have been very pleased to have this extra room?

But not as pleased as all the kids who are about to perform …

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at