Filichia Features: Musicals in Our Schools Week

Filichia Features: Musicals in Our Schools Week

Photo courtesy of Marcus Woollen.

All parents eventually get this question from their kids: “If there’s a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day, when’s Children’s Day?”

Almost always, both parents immediately answer, “Every day.”

As we finish Musicals in Our Schools Week, which ran from March 19-23, 2012, I say that every week should be Musicals in Our Schools Week.

Someday maybe, each week will be. But for now, at least there’s one Musicals in Our Schools Week. Last Monday, it got some important visibility.

It happened on 46th Street and Broadway, at the other end of Duffy Square that plays host to the TKTS booth. People passing by, sitting in the pedestrian mall or standing atop the red steps behind TKTS learned about this very special week.

Three groups of students performed songs from classic musicals. Dozens of kindergarten and even pre-kindergarten kids from the Sacred Heart Early Childhood School did “Tomorrow” from ANNIE. Many from P.S. 124 sang “Getting to Know You” from The King and I. Then came Leadership and Public Service High School students delivering the title song from GUYS AND DOLLS. Finally, member from all three schools sang “Children Will Listen” from INTO THE WOODS.

To be precise, the word “Junior” was added to the titles of Annie, Guys And Dolls and Into The Woods, while “G2K” was tacked onto The King and I. And thereby hangs a tale.

It actually starts with West Side Story and Gypsy authors Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. Almost 20 years ago went to Freddie Gershon, the President and CEO of Music Theatre International.

Says Gershon, “They identified with visionary prescience the contracting world of young people in the audience and the general lack of opportunity for exposure to the arts and musical theatre in particular. The challenge was to engage kids and let them discover the magic of theatre for themselves, so that it stays vibrant and robust for multiple generations by being insinuated into the culture of our country.”

Frankly, kids weren’t interested in being in shows they’d considered babyish. If a teacher asked a pre-teen boy to be in a production of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, the lad’s pulses might understandably not start racing. But tell that same boy that he can be The Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance or Troy in High School Musical, and you just might catch his interest.

Of course, doing a two-and-half show involves a great deal of time, talent and expense. Some schools simply don’t have the resources or finances to pull it off (especially in an era where so much money goes to school sports). But Gershon realized that half a show is better than none.

Hence, he created MTI’s Broadway Junior Collection. Says Gershon, “It introduces elementary and middle schools to the joys of musical theatre through 30- and 60-minute author-approved versions of Broadway works. This American art form is kept alive as students experience the process of performing their own productions of authentic Broadway musicals. They collaborate with their fellow students on costumes, sets and other theatre crafts.”

The program has been an astonishing success. In 18 years, over 70,000 separate productions have taken place in America, involving 4,000,000 children. MTI now has nearly three dozen Junior titles, and has inspired other musical theater licensing companies to create their own.


Ted Chapin, President of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Chairman of the American Theater Wing, flat-out said it: “We actually listened to you, Freddie, with your Broadway Jr. series, and created our own with the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musicals, which we call our “Getting to Know” – or, “G2K” – collection of such classic titles as Oklahoma!, Cinderella and The King and I.

Those words were spoken in between songs at the Musicals in Our Schools Week celebration. Chapin said them after he had told about Baayork Lee, a young girl who had appeared as Princess Ying Yaowalak in the original production of The King and I in 1951. “At the time,” he said, “Baayork was an elementary student from Chinatown right here in New York. Today, of course, Baayork is a beloved member of the theater community as a director, choreographer and performer. Recently, Baayork went back to her Chinatown elementary school roots with a mission: to build a musical theater program at P.S. 124, Yung Wing Elementary. Thanks to the dedication of the school’s principal, educators, staff and the mentorship of Baayork, P.S. 124 now has a vibrant musical theater program.”

As the students sang “Getting to Know You,” I thought of an irony. That melody wasn’t originally written for The King and I, but for South Pacific. It was a song that Lieutenant Cable sang after he fell in love with Liat. It title then was “Suddenly Lucky” – and all I could think was that these kids were suddenly lucky to have Baayork Lee working with them and the chance to do The King and I, G2K.

Gershon certainly agrees. As he said from the podium, “This week is for all those schools that don’t have the privilege of doing musicals in their schools, to call attention to principals, teachers and to communities. Because of our involvement with Broadway, Jr., I’ve had a chance to witness first-hand the remarkable transformation of what musicals can do for young people. They get involved in the process of casting, rehearsing, designing and then ultimately performing their show on stage. And,” he stressed, “they own that experience and never forget it.”

Gershon was quick to mention the other benefits, too. “I’ve seen children work together and collaborate as a team. They learn new skills, get better at reading, acquire a better vocabulary and use their imaginations. Even history comes to life. It’s all hard work, but they don’t mind, for while they’re immersed in a learning experience, they’re having fun. When you go to school, how many times can you have fun and learn at the same time?”

That got many in the crowd to look at the people next to them and soberly nod. But not long after, they were interrupting Gershon with a round of endorsement applause – after he said, “We want to congratulate the companies that have already embarked on this program, particularly Rodgers and Hammerstein and recently Tams-Witmark. We’d like to see this offered by everyone who has a piece of musical theater. This is not just for MTI; we need this to be ecumenical.”

While Gershon was pleased to report that “musical theater for kids in now being done in all 50 states,” he was far less happy to admit “but not in every one of the schools.” And that’s where the SMASH – the NBC series about mounting a musical – comes in.

Neil Meron, the co-producer of the series (as well as the current Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and the Hairspray and Chicago films) explained: “SMASH is doing its part in ensuring our young people have access to the arts by building sustainable musical theater programs in 20 underserved schools nationwide, through our initiative, ‘NBC’s SMASH – Make a Musical.’ In the fall, another 10 schools will be added to the program. We received over 1,000 applications demonstrating just how much help our schools need.”

That got a hush from the crowd. For 1,000 schools to have heard about the initiative was powerful enough; that so many desperately needed it and followed through with paperwork genuinely showed how necessary such a program is. (Elementary, middle and high schools can apply by visiting

But there’s another statistic that was far more pleasing: Over 1,000 musical theater programs and over 100,000 people nationwide actively participated in events Musicals in Our Schools Week.

Timothy Allen McDonald, the co-founder of the magnificent Junior Theater Festival that showcases young musical theater talent each January in Atlanta, took to the podium. He urged everyone to visit The site showed all the free musical theater performances that were happening nationwide, for which The Junior Theater Project and iTheatrics deserved credit, too.

“There’s so much we can all do to help,” he said. “Volunteering time, donating money, advocating for schools in need, taking out an ad in a program, or simply buying a ticket and seeing a school musical. Write a letter to the editor in support of musicals in our schools. Check out The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities ‘Reinvesting in Arts Education Winning America's Future through Creative Schools’ for support information.” McDonald didn’t forget the so-called “little guy,” either. “Send a letter of appreciation – or cupcakes -- to an arts-friendly teacher, principal, or administrator,” he said.

While Gershon may or may not have ever received cupcakes, he will be shortly getting a more lasting token of esteem. The Tony Award Committee that annually bestows “honors in excellence in theater” has voted to give Gershon a Tony. It will soon be shining brightly on his mantle. But here’s hoping that it gets a little extra sunlight the first week of spring when Musicals in Our Schools Week comes around.

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