Broadway's Biggest Hit

Broadway's Biggest Hit
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The Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, Ga. has grown, viz.: 70 schools booked for January 2013, 3,000 kids and about 500 teachers, chaperones and parents. The children are all grade school kids (through middle school). They work as teams, learning new skills and respecting each other for something in addition to academic grades. They communicate without texting. They use their brains, imaginations and speak to each other the old-fashioned way (one-on-one) and develop mutuality of respect.

Adjudicators (experts from the Kennedy Center and other learned organizations and educators from around the United States) attend, including Broadway directors, choreographers, lighting designers and others of the theatre. They give constructive guidance, support and try to help to every school that performs. Children walk away having learned by being encouraged and nurtured and teachers are applauded, venerated and deserve it. Teachers are allies and heroes to these kids.

The Junior Festival weekend concludes with a series of awards -- the top being the Freddie "G" awards. I agreed to this on the condition that the award had a "payoff", viz.: something special other than getting a plaque or a statuette. Freddie "G" is for "the eight great outstanding teachers" in the grade schools of America who attend each Junior Festival and demonstrate remarkable teaching traits.

This is the third year there has been such an award.

The class of 2012 arrived this summer in New York after being flown from different states, being whisked off to their hotel in the center of Times Square. Everything is paid for. It's not just a fancy trip to see shows and have a good time. It's a combination of having a good time and eight people getting to know each other and learning more skills. Myrna and I attend. We all gathered and sat with Ken Billington (one of the great lighting designers of New York), who gave of himself (the greatest gift he could give). Ninety seven Broadway musicals to his name, Ken knows his business. He concluded a virtuoso teaching seminar knowing the financial limitations of schools and explained how to make it work with Billington secrets imparted to them. He ended by saying "If I've done my job right, you are never aware of my lighting. It just serves the work." That says everything about collaboration and the essence of creating any show.

That also set the tone for a weekend of master classes with musical directors, composer/lyricists, set designers, choreographers, a director -- all of whom are of fine Broadway quality and great credentials, young, energetic, bombastic, dynamic, loving what they do, theatre craft, a whole new world for all of those kids who can't get in the show, don't want to be in a show or are embarrassed to be in a show, can't keep a tune, have two left feet, can't dance, but can they do all sorts of other things that make a show work... and have fun and be part of the experience.

So much was packed into the first day that by late afternoon, the teachers needed a break and got a chance to see the first Legally Blonde JR (a 60-minute cut down version of Legally Blonde, the monumentally successful tour with over 4,000 requests to MTI for licensing to schools) performed by 75 kids. The children got scripts on Monday of that week. By Friday, we saw the performance! Two of the three authors were there: the composer and lyricist, Larry O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. We all were riveted. Kids only wearing tee-shirts and slacks on a barren black stage with an electric piano driven by a wisp of a girl who has a 30-piece orchestra in her two hands and ten fingers and a percussionist to support her. There were no falling chandeliers, hydraulics or fog machines. It was just pure magic on a bare stage. From a Monday to a Friday, they made it (molded by loving, skilled mentor/teachers)!

Ninety minutes later, we all met again at Chez Josephine, the NYC bistro which replicates Josephine Baker's great Parisian club of the 1920's.

It wasn't just a dinner. Teachers sat with wonderful passionate people from the press, like Peter Filichia from the Newark Star Ledger, Jeff Calhoun, the director of High School Musical and Newsies and Tobin Ost, the set designer who works hand in hand with Jeff. In addition, Kristen and Bobby Lopez, who wrote all of the Nemo shows for Disney's theme parks (Kristen is a retired theatre teacher). Bobby is also one of the collaborators/authors of Avenue Q and a co-author of Book of Mormon. Sitting at another table was Benj Pasek and his writing partner, Justin Paul (with his new wife, Asher). They had written a little show while still at the University of Michigan and are now only 27-years-old. That first show was done at the Public Theatre in New York and since then, they have written James and the Giant Peach (a musical) and are about to launch A Christmas Story, the motion picture adapted as a musical for which they wrote the score.

Teachers were meeting authentic theatre "colleagues," people with a work ethic of hard work and resilience. People who take risks and are willing to fail. People who are entrepreneurial and give of themselves like these teachers. These people were overflowing with their talent and every one of them had stories to tell about the teachers who changed their lives. Exactly what every teacher should know. One teacher at one shining moment saw in them or said to them the right thing which gave them the courage to follow their heart, to dream. If you love what you do, you'll be good at it. If you're good at it, you'll love it more. If you're a teacher, what you do helps other human beings and shapes them and makes the world a better place.

Myrna and I were exhausted by now and invigorated at the same time. I was tearful after meeting these teachers and learning who they are, how they think, what they are -- from Buffalo, New York, Wyoming, Florida, Virginia, Nashville -- and they did not have to say all the wonderful things they said. I wasn't there for kudos. I was there for feedback.

Treat teachers with respect. Compensate them with money, love and appreciation. Your children are in their hands. Our future is in their hands.

Congratulations Class of 2012. Eight winners and not just winners of the Freddie "G," but winners as human beings. People who make a difference in our society.

Our children are blessed by being guided and nurtured by your sensitive, caring and compassionate hands.

Thank you.

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