Rising Stars Take Aim at Broadway

Toward the end of this year's "Rising Stars" performance at Manhattan's Town Hall--a national showcase for graduates of America's top musical theatre schools--impresario Scott Siegel reflected on the difficulties of starting out as a Broadway performer. Launching a career in musical theatre, he told the audience, "is like climbing a mountain with your fingernails."

And then it gets harder. Newcomers to the Great White Way quickly learn that everything's not coming up roses. So much depends on luck, timing and perseverance, and being the best at your craft guarantees little or nothing. The daily indignities of show business--cattle calls, cavalier rejections and bruising competition--are not for the faint of heart.

But Siegel, one of New York's most generous and savvy promoters of new talent, is there to help young performers as they begin their climb. And "Rising Stars," which just celebrated its ninth year, has become one of the more important portals for newbies knocking on the door. It's also one of the few annual showcases that is open to the public, along with a small army of agents, talent scouts and other professionals who pack the hall for each show.

They weren't disappointed last week, when 18 young actors took the stage and got their three to four minutes in the sun, each singing a song from the Walt Disney canon. The performers came from some of New York's most respected training grounds--like NYU Steinhardt, Cap21, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA), Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Marymount Manhattan College and Circle in the Square--as well as the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM) and other schools beyond the city. But no matter where they came from, the stakes were uniformly high.

After nine years "Rising Stars" isn't just a coveted gig. If you're good enough, and lucky enough, it could be a launching pad. Past performers have gone on to major roles in Broadway shows like Hair, Les Miserables, The Last Ship, Jekyll & Hyde, Wicked, Bring It On, Spiderman and Beautiful--and three more will be appearing in Hamilton. Others have been nominated for an Olivier Award on London's West End; they've performed with Bill Irwin on the West Coast, and some were featured in TV shows like "The Glee Project," "Glee," and a PBS Special.

"Our Rising Stars are making their marks all over show business, and this year's group is one of the best we've seen," said Siegel, who is the creator and host of Town Hall's hugely popular "Broadway by the Year" series. He's also produced concert events like "Broadway Unplugged," "Broadway Ballyhoo" and performances for Michael Feinstein's Jazz at Lincoln Center series, along with more than 100 other top-drawer shows in New York.

Siegel got the idea for "Rising Stars" ten years ago from Marvin Leffler, former President of Town Hall, and this year's cast continued the show's stellar tradition. Guided by Director Scott Coulter and choreographer Vibecke Dahle, all 18 singers delivered memorable performances, ably backed by Musical Director Jon Fischer on piano, Jerry DeVore on bass and Dan Gross on drums. Remarkably, the cast had only one week to rehearse, after the participants were chosen and the musical theme was selected.

Opening "Rising Stars" would be a tough assignment for anyone, but D.J. Plunkett, a CCM graduate, was more than up to the task. He sang "Go the Distance" from Hercules with a rich, confident voice and dramatic flair. Anne Bragg, from NYU Steinhardt, landed a powerful, gospel-driven rendition of "Almost There" from The Princess and the Frog. She strutted the stage like a pro and drove the song to a rousing climax.

Renee Gagner offered a bracing change of pace when she curled up to the microphone, purring and pouting her way through "He's a Tramp" from Lady and the Tramp. On a night dominated by Disney anthems and ballads, she held the audience spellbound with an electrifying, cabaret-like intimacy.

Like others in the cast, Paola Hernandez ditched an earlier career path--in her case, advertising and public relations--to pursue musical theatre. A Circle in the Square graduate, her exuberant, high-kicking performance of "I Wanna Be A Rockette" from Kicks: The Showgirl Musical, was one of the highlights of the evening.

Some Rising Stars had to fight just to make it through school: CoCo Smith couldn't afford to go to AMDA, so she worked at a daycare center to save money. Then she applied, got in and put on fundraisers to raise money for a move to New York. Her muscular voice, swaggering presence and spot-on comic chops wowed the crowd with a snarling "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from The Little Mermaid.

Others battled to survive long before reaching Town Hall. Diagnosed at 16 with cancer, Charlie Meredith won the fight and recently graduated from CCM. His whimsical performance of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from Song of the South - during which he tap-danced and played the ukulele -- was an eye-popping homage to the Golden Age of Vaudeville, when performers were expected to do it all.

The 2015 cast got a well-earned standing ovation when the night ended. But as in any successful show, much of the credit goes to Director Scott Coulter. In the highly competitive world of musical theatre, where so many talented people have built specialized careers, he is truly a Renaissance Man.

Coulter is an award-winning singer, actor and recording artist; he's one of New York's most respected and sought-after vocal coaches; he's the founder and owner of Spot-On Entertainment, which produces concerts around the world; he directed and starred in the Emmy-nominated PBS production of "A Christmas Carol: The Symphonic Concert;" he's a producer of original programming at 54 Below--and he's directed "Rising Stars" for eight years.

Coulter screens performers every year at New York musical theatre showcases, and he scouts new talent on trips to out of town schools. Along with Siegel, he auditions hundreds of candidates for the show. Unlike many of the agents hunting for talent, Coulter is looking for something deeper than a 45-second glimpse of each performer's high notes and low notes. And he invariably finds it.

"The beauty of Rising Stars is that we let our performers take their time," he said. "They sing an entire song. It's not rushed or hurried. It's a personal presentation that shows us what they can really do.

"Unlike what they've learned in school, they're not up here playing a role in a musical--they're being themselves for three to four minutes," Coulter added. "And that's what's so fascinating, not just to me, but to an audience. It's a look deep inside a performer that you don't always get on a Broadway stage."