Way back when, I wrote a blog entry in response to some action and discussion on the blogosphere about how to keep the digital generation coming to the theatre. I have continued to ponder this issue, because it really is a legitimate concern for anyone who wants to develop and produce theatre in this day and age.
I started thinking about the phenomenon of the “Broadway Junior.” For those of you who don’t know what that is, it was an initiative started by Freddie Gershon (who has at least 30 years on me and has his own blog) at Music Theatre International years ago. Freddie believed that in order to keep the upcoming generations interested in live theatre, we needed to start young. And we didn’t just need to get more young people into the seats to see theatre, it was even more important that we got them to participate in theatre at a young age. Starting with Annie, and then moving on to everything from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians to Once on this Island, they now have tons of junior versions of beloved and classic musicals that used to be a part of mainstream culture.
I’ve workshopped and developed Broadway Juniors, directed them, advised underserved middle schools who were putting them on for the first time, travelled across the country training teachers how to mount and produce them in their schools, and spoken to hundreds of teachers over the years about their experiences with them. I couldn’t commend Freddie more for taking a risk and truly keeping the American Musical Theatre canon alive in such an innovative way. While they aren't all perfect, there really is no better way to get kids, teachers and communities excited about musical theatre.
And I'm not just tooting Freddie's horn because he once deemed me the "Agnes de Mille of Staten Island" for my groundbreaking choreography in Disney's Aristocats at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. (Look, everyone has to start somewhere.) I really mean it.
In addition to Broadway Juniors, and along the same lines, I think that there is something very unique and special about kids performing theatre for other kids. Each year, at both the Kaufman Center and my children’s theatre’s bi-annual performances, I see the same thing happen: kids love to watch each other perform. I have watched parents try to physically remove their children from our Brooklyn Children’s Theatre dress rehearsal after they have technically been dismissed, because their eyes are glued to the stage and their butts are glued to the floor as they excitedly watch their peers perform.
Same thing at the Kaufman Center. I sometimes think they are more interested in seeing the other shows than doing their own show. If I had a dollar for each time one of my students begged me to stop giving them notes so they could watch Group 6’s Macbeth, I could fund my first workshop of Helen. Not only did they sit transfixed watching each other, but somehow the same kids who couldn’t memorize the three lines they had in my show, were able to memorize the lyrics to the twenty four other songs in everyone else’s shows. This is no exaggeration. Join us next summer for the last day of camp “Sing-a-long” and watch 120 kids sing all the words to songs that didn’t even exist the month before.
Now this might seem like a shameless plug for my show, which happens to have a bunch of kids, playing kids, and doing it really well. And I do think there is something special about that, especially in these troubled times we live in. I think audiences will find it refreshing and enlightening to hear the voices (both literal and metaphorical) of the future expressed through music, theatre and children. And it can’t hurt to give the current generation a reason to turn their cell phones on vibrate and relax their texting fingers for two hours.
Who knows, we just might find them begging us to take them to Macbeth.