Filichia Features: The Shubert Foundation / MTI Broadway Junior Student Share Celebration

Filichia Features: The Shubert Foundation / MTI Broadway Junior Student Share Celebration

View the rest of the photos on MTI's Flickr page!

Good thing that assistant stage manager Lindsay Weiner led the audience in breathing lessons before the show officially began.

Our breath might have otherwise been taken away for good by all we saw at The Shubert Foundation/MTI Broadway Junior Student Share Celebration.

On Tuesday, 19 schools, both middle and intermediate -- as well as academies and arts institutes -- brought their teens and tweens to perform – not in some auditorium, cafetorium or makeshift space. They'd be at no less than the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, where they’d sing and dance on the same stage where the Tony-winning Memphis performs.

Hundreds of kids were here to literally do a matinee; after all, that is the French word for "morning." The festivities were scheduled to start at 10:30, but really: what theatrical performance ever starts on time?

Nevertheless, the kids weren't the least bit restless or impatient. They were sufficiently entertained by the pre-show music, with which they gleefully sang along.

These were not the songs atop the Billboard charts this week, but songs from stage and screen musicals. Some of their grandparents might not have even been alive when Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway in 1950. But their grandchildren from MS 633 in Brooklyn know every word of "Luck Be a Lady" -- because they've done Guys and Dolls, Jr. at school in preparation of doing the show's finale here.

One can only imagine what wonderful songs American youths could know and love if they could only be exposed to them. The young girl behind me who, as soon as MS 323 in Brooklyn began singing “A Whole New World,” purred “I LOVE this song!” Well, why shouldn’t she?

Robert E. Wankel, the co-CEO and president of The Shubert Organization, came out to welcome the kids to this celebration that his company has co-sponsored for seven straight years. He congratulated the students for putting in "a lot of labor and a lot of love" into the songs they'd present.

Peter Avery, the director of theater for the New York City Department of Education, gave credit to the students' teachers and principals. The kids rewarded them with a good round of applause -- which, to be frank, is not the usual response that some teachers and principals get from students. But whenever and wherever a school play is produced, not much time passes before kids come to appreciate the people who make the performances possible.

Freddie Gershon, the CEO of MTI, pointed out to the kids that "You'll soon be doing what people spend their lives auditioning and rehearsing to do: appearing on Broadway." He urged them to "Keep doing it and keep coming back."

Up till now, Gershon had received the warmest welcome from the kids. They knew that his founding the MTI Broadway Junior Collection has improved their lives as well as millions of others. But the applause they gave Gershon sounded like the snap of a twig compared to the loud handclaps, cheers and screams that they bestowed on emcee Nick Jonas. A jet plane's swooping above one's ears is said to cause the highest decibel level of noise, but the reception for Jonas may well have shattered that mark.


Nick Jonas - view more photos on MTI's Flickr page!

The star told about his early childhood, when he stood atop the family coffee table while holding a turkey baster that he pretended was a microphone. Now, here he was pointing out that the best aspect of theater was "being around other people who are passionate about what you're passionate about."

There were plenty here. Before each school performed, student representatives took to the mikes and told how MTI Broadway Junior experiences had enhanced their lives. "I get to do something I love and be serious about it," said one lass. The kids to the right of me nodded crisply in agreement.

Going first isn’t easy, and MS 57 in Brooklyn deserved great credit for testing the Shubert waters and getting through their title number from Fame, Jr. without any serious mishaps. Later, students from JHS 80 in the Bronx did the same title song. All of them may not indeed “live forever,” but this memory should last for quite some time. Similarly, when MS 219 from the Bronx sang “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” there seemed to be extra energy probably because the kids, to say the least, liked being on Broadway.

IS 10 in Queens got applause for its "Prince Ali" kickline. The Young Women's Leadership School in Brooklyn spelled out the title of "N.Y.C." with their arms. Here's hoping that when they first encountered the words "Gershwins," "Kaufman" and "Hart" in the lyrics that they asked who these people were. Maybe some of them will even research these theatrical giants. We can only hope.

When MS 61 from Brooklyn did "The Human Heart" from Once on This Island, Jr., the students from Soundview Academy in the Bronx, sitting behind me, sang along. Softly, mind you; they weren't trying to distract or compete. They'd done the show, too, and would soon perform "Why We Tell the Story" from it, so they simply enjoyed having their memories refreshed by another beautiful song from the Ahrens-Flaherty score.

When MS 61 had finished, one of the Soundview kids said, "They were great!" followed by the swooning sound of appreciation that one makes after he's had his first piece of expensive chocolate. The same sounds occurred after MS 584 in Brooklyn did "Pray" and PS/MS 4 in the Bronx performed “We Dance,” both of which are from this show about the adventures of Caribbean native TiMoune. (So many schools are doing Once on This Island, Jr. that we can genuinely say that TiMoune belongs to everyone.)

When the student introduced MS 226 in Brooklyn's Willy Wonka, Jr., she got an approving glance from her compatriot for perfectly pronouncing the word "Shubert." Afterward, when the announcement that MS 442 in Brooklyn would be performing a song called "Shipoopi," those kids who'd previously had no knowledge of The Music Man, Jr. giggled and snorted at the last two syllables of the song's name. But, oh, the expert way these kids danced eventually made a substantially larger impression.

MS 111 from Manhattan added some classy gymnastics to Dear Edwina, Jr. Then came some smiles of pride from the students from the Renaissance School of the Arts. After a particularly complex dance move in a song from Disney’s Aladdin, Jr., the looks implied that they'd just done it better than ever before. How nice that it occurred on the day that it most counted.

My seat on the first row aisle allowed me to see into the wings. How wonderful to catch the concern on the many teachers’ faces as they hoped their pride-and-joys would rise to the occasion. The teacher from MS 241 in Manhattan didn’t like the too-far-upstage location where her kids had decided to stand. She waved as frantically as a third-base coach who signals a runner home in extra innings after the opposing center fielder has bobbled the ball. These kids, who did "Gaston" from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Jr. were so accomplished that they would have received cheers if they'd performed against the back wall.

A teacher from MS 72 in Queens mouthed the words to "It's the Hard-Knock Life" from Annie, Jr. -- but stopped before the "top of the Chrysler Building" line. Once we heard the lass assigned to sing it, we understood why the teacher didn’t feel as if she had to continue: the girl had such a powerful voice that she might have been heard from the top of the Chrysler Building.

However, the teacher who was most taxed in mouthing the words was from IS 68 in Brooklyn. She’d ambitiously chosen Into the Woods, Jr. but her kids certainly didn’t let her down.

I smiled. Twenty-plus years ago when I wrote the first edition of Let’s Put on a Musical, one critic who reviewed it took me to task for recommending Into the Woods for young performers; he felt that it was much too demanding a show for them. How I wish that he’d been here! He might well have got on his hands and knees and apologized profusely in the middle of groveling.)

There was a marvelous moment in the sequence from Bugsy Malone, Jr. by MS 220 in Brooklyn. At one point, everyone’s smile got a bit brighter, and we could all tell that they’d just reached their all-time favorite moment in the number.

Finally, we had JHS 185 from Queens do the first scene from Thoroughly Modern Millie, Jr. with a Millie who was thoroughly terrific. There’s a possibility that the kids who supported her might not have even realized how good she was – because they were all concentrating so vividly on their own roles in the number. Concentration such as that isn’t easy to find, but it’s always welcome.

After an hour and 45 minutes, everyone had been seen and appreciated. Was every note hit perfectly? Of course not. Did everyone come in at the precise moment he was supposed to? Not always. But the kids in the audience ignored the mistakes, for they too had made the same ones along the way and knew that these things happen. Better still, the kids on stage had already learned the most important lesson of performing: when you make a mistake, you forget about it and keep going to make the rest of your presentation as great as it can be.

In the middle of the show was a short documentary film in which teachers and students involved with The Shubert Foundation/MTI Broadway Junior Student Share Celebration aired their views.

I’m still trying to decide which was my favorite line: 1) “It’s a cure for the peer-pressure disease and that I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school disease.” 2) “I find that kids who do this program are kinder to each other.” 3) “This program changes their lives – and saves their lives.”

Let’s not worry which line was best. After all, this magnificent event isn’t a competition, but a celebration. And, my, wasn’t there plenty to celebrate?

View photos of the performances on MTI's Flickr page!

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at as well as his reviews for the Newark Star-Ledger on 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