Filichia Features: Broadway Goes Back to School

Filichia Features: Broadway Goes Back to School

By Peter Filichia on September 25, 2015

Broadway Back to School was presented September 20th at Feinstein's/54 Below, presented by The International Thespian Society and the Educational Theater Association.

Although few students look forward to the end of summer vacation, three young men and five young women from The Beacon School had to be assuaged by one fact.

Kenneth An, Leslie Gaines, Atticus Koizumi, Leo Miranda and Eva Wertimer knew they’d soon be moving uptown ten blocks from the West 44th Street school – to show their singing abilities to a packed house at Feinstein’s/54 Below.

On Sunday, Sept. 20, they opened Broadway Back to School with the lovely and haunting “A Kid Inside” from Is There Life after High School? Then taking the stage were co-hosts Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell of [title of show] fame. They definitely have plenty of kid inside in the best sense of the word, for they remembered their time as members of The International Thespian Society that caters to teens with dramatic ambitions.

That’s why we were here, for, as the evening was subtitled, “A Benefit for Theatre Education” presented by The International Thespian Society which has a wonderful festival each June in Lincoln, Nebraska that caters to nearly 4,000 teens and their teachers.

Bell recalled his Thespian days in Atlanta and Blackwell remembered hers in suburban Ohio. They set the tone for a nice night that had to motivate An, Gaines, Koizumi, Miranda and Wertimer – all from Thespian Troupe 6968 -- to keep going and follow their dreams, lest they turn into regrets.

Stephanie D’Abruzzo, the 2004 Tony-nominee for Avenue Q, brought such souvenirs as her well-worn Thespian T-shirt, a varsity letter she’d won for performing, a certificate of commendation and, last but hardly least, a copy of the glossy monthly Dramatics -- “which,” she said, “is still to this day the only time I’ve ever made the cover of a magazine.”

Stephanie D'Abruzzo (Photo © Monica Simoes)

On two screens were projected slides of D’Abruzzo as the title characters in two high school productions: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (wearing, of course, the character’s trademark red dress) and The Diary of Anne Frank. Blackwell noted “Your Anne had the same bangs as my Dolly Levi.”

D’Abruzzo then referenced another heroine from a 1964 musical – Fanny Brice – by singing a titanic rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Don’t believe the lyric “I guess I didn’t make it,” for D’Abruzzo made it and made it her own. The road to Broadway has often been paved with good intentions to revive Funny Girl, but the complaint always is there’s no performer who’d do it justice. Here she is, boys! Here she is, world!

The screens also displayed Bell (with eye-shadow galore) as a teen in Pippin. He noted that school ended at three, the show started at eight – “and I was there, ready to perform at 3:15.” That’s a theatre kid for ya!

Carla Stickler, who’s been a Broadway Elphaba, told us that she’d started out flying around the stage as John in Peter Pan. However, she really took flight when playing Little Red in Into The Woods – “and we did the whole show,” she bragged, noting that at the time the Junior Edition would not be available for many a last midnight.

Having high school memories wasn’t hard for Blake Daniel, who’d auditioned for the original Spring Awakening when he was still a senior. Little did he know that the “Thank you” he got at the end of his song and scene wasn’t perfunctory; the staff really was interested in him, which they proved by giving him Ernst on Broadway two months after he was graduated in June, 2007.

Nicolette Robinson (Photo © Monica Simoes).

Theater is famous for being all-inclusive, and Exhibit A here was Nicolette Robinson, so impressive in last season’s Brooklynite (and who’ll probably be just as striking in the upcoming Invisible Thread). She not only has a black father and a white mother but also grew up Jewish while attending a Catholic school. “You must have confused them,” quipped Bell.

Perhaps not; her mother was the school’s dance teacher, so Robinson made her Thespian mark as a dancer. Yet she proved here that she could dynamically sing, too, when delivering “Gravity,” the pop song by Sara Bareilles who’ll soon have her own musical on Broadway: Waitress.

Michael Urie, fresh from his accomplished stint in Shows for Days, must have got along with Lincoln Center management, for they loaned him a costume and wig that was just right for Amadeus – the role he’d played in high school and excerpted for us here. He also recalled telling his drama teacher “I don’t think the other kids are taking this seriously.” To hear that he’s still in touch with her was truly gratifying, especially when he added “She’s an awesome lady and I can’t wait to tell her about this night.”

Alli Mauzey did Urie one better by actually having her former teacher in the audience and thanking the educator for casting her in three different productions of Annie. Considering that we’ve come to know Mauzey from Wicked, Hairspray and Cry-Baby, we were surprised to have her go all operetta on us, singing “Love Is Where You Find It” in art-song fashion, complete with trills.

Could the roots of this loftiness have come from her stint as half of “Side by Side,” a singing duo that, she said, “was a big hit at Leisure World”? After all, a retirement village is ideal for meeting the age group most likely to know operetta.

Who encountered musical theater at the earliest age? No contest: Seth Rudetsky, that guru of Sirius XM Radio (among his many other achievements). “I fell in love with The Most Happy Fella at three and kept listening to the record,” he said, stressing that last word just as much as he did “needle” to establish how long ago this was – and to explain the effort that had to be expended in the pre-CD era when one wanted to hear a song over and over – such as Susan Johnson’s rendition of “Ooh! My Feet!”

Rudetsky undoubtedly assumed we’d doubt him, so he played a tape that revealed his three-year-old voice singing over Johnson’s recording. Even then he sounded better than Shelley Winters in Minnie’s Boys. And yet, to show how much improvement nine years would bring, he played us a tape of his doing the same song when he was twelve. Yes, he’d come a long way, but he’s of course come an even a greater distance since.

2015 Jimmy Award Winner Marla Loussaint (Photo © Monica Simoes).

Having even more staying power is the 1905 pop hit “I Don’t Care,” thanks to Cheri Steinkellner’s including it in her new jukebox musical Hello! My Baby. Here it was entrusted to Marla Louissaint.

Who? Let me put it this way: if you’d gone to the rest room while Louissaint was being introduced -- and returned while she was mid-song -- you’d swear that she was performing on her night off from a Broadway show.

Not yet, not yet. Right now, Louissaint is a freshman at Fordham, whose tuition was easier to pay after she won $10,000 as this year’s female winner of the Jimmy Awards. Louissaint was so sensational that we should all write a thank-you note to each Jimmy judge.

Expressing a bit of embarrassment was Chad Kimball, who admitted that he didn’t know about the Thespian Society when he was at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. As he did “Memphis Lives in Me” – one of the songs that helped him get a 2010 Tony nomination – we were reminded that plenty of kids out there still need to know about The International Thespian Society. Let’s inform every parent and kid so that all can all profit from it.

In that spirit was the most moving speech by Julie Cohen Theobald, the executive director of The Educational Theatre Association that provides a home to the Thespian Society. After Theobald established that she’d once portrayed Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, she noted that “seeing the enthusiasm afterward from my teachers, family and friends gave me such a feeling of accomplishment. Every kid should have that experience. It helps with college, careers and life, for it gives resilience and creativity. Such experiences are not just for people who make it to Broadway,” she stressed, “but for everyone. We will not rest until we realize that vision.”

Yes, we loved all the performances we’d seen and heard, but this speech spurred the most heartfelt applause.

The Beacon students and pros then returned to the stage to do “Our Time,” Stephen Sondheim’s glorious finale from Merrily We Roll Along. “We’re what’s happening,” everyone proclaimed accurately, while keeping the fervent optimism straight to the final line -- “Me and you!” -- which is repeated eight times.

Broadway Back to School at Feinstein's/54 Below (Photo © Monica Simoes).

“Me and you” are indeed important to the International Thespian Society’s future. Scott Wittman reminded us of that in a video that he and partner Marc Shaiman had filmed in advance. “Normally we’d give money to get people out of Nebraska,” Wittman joked, “but now we’re going to give money to get people there” – to the June, 2016  festival.

Wittman also pointed out at one point at every festival, students man buckets and run around the house collecting money for literally a minute in the event known as “A Minute to Give It.” The slogan doesn’t contain the type of “rhyme” that would please the great Broadway lyricists of yore, but it does get the job done. Here at Feinstein’s/54 Below, we had the chance to do it, too, and thrust our folding money into the buckets that zoomed by as Shaiman played the big dance break from the title song of Mame.

We weren’t told how much was raised in those sixty frenetic seconds. Was the reason that the buckets were so filled that no one was finished counting by the time Broadway Back to School ended? Let’s hope the figure wasn’t revealed because we didn’t give enough. However, if you fear the latter is the case, you too can take a minute and give it your all at

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