25 November 2013

Making Broadway Babies

[Over the past few years I’ve collected several articles, all from Allegro, that report on programs for children interested in musical theater.  (Allegro is the member magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents, among other instrumental artists, the musicians who play in theater pit orchestras.)  As regular readers of ROT know, theater education (as well as the arts in schools) is one of my most cherished causes; I have published articles, both by my own hand and borrowed from others, on this topic on this blog many times (see, for example, “Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009)—and I’ll likely continue to do so as long at I put out ROT.  Obviously I encourage readers to support these efforts or those like them—and there are similar programs for theater, both musical and non-musical, in locales all over the country, some aimed at young artists and other at young audiences—but as far as ROT is concerned for now, it’s enough to learn about them and hear what they’re up to.  So, in that light, here’s a collection of articles about teaching kids to become Broadway Babies.  ~Rick]

by Bettina Covo
How do we build an appetite for live musical theatre? That's easy: teach the children

The good old summertime: economies sinking, governments defaulting, prices rising, job markets shrinking, orchestras struggling, sweltering heat – and this year, an earthquake and a hurricane! Perhaps it was a summer many of us would prefer to forget.

But for eight lucky kids, it was a summer they will always remember. They got to spend one glorious week in August at Broadway Boot Camp, hosted this year by Local 802.

The camp is a yearly summer program presented by Inside Broadway, the professional New York City-based children’s theatre company.

For five wonderful days, these children got to experience, first-hand, what it takes to put together a Broadway-style showcase.

Under the creative tutelage of program director Katie McAllister and teaching artist Abigail Jones, the kids – ranging in age from 10 to 15 – each learned a new Broadway song that challenged their vocal abilities, a monologue that taught them the subtleties of comedy, and a rather complicated group dance number they had to learn in just two hours. It was an intensive marathon of song, dance and drama.

Local 802 was proud and pleased to host the program. Michael Presser, executive director of Inside Broadway, had approached the union to see if we might donate our facilities three hours each day, culminating in a final show in the Club Room for a small audience of friends and family.

The officers and Executive Board members gave a unanimous thumbs-up to the request, which provided the kids a unique opportunity to rehearse and perform in the heart of the Theatre District.

Acting as liaison between 802 and the Inside Broadway team, I sat in on their last day of rehearsal in Room B. As I spoke to the group, I found myself talking about 802 and the challenges facing musicians on Broadway and how it’s all about "keeping it live." The kids told me how thrilled they were to be at 802 where they had the chance to sneak into the Club Room each day to hear different bands rehearsing and watch professional musicians in action. Their response was a resounding: "It was awesome!"

The campers’ final performance was attended by President Tino Gagliardi and Recording Vice President John O’Connor. Tino gave some fantastic opening remarks. The show was great and the kids had a blast.

Of equal significance was the fact that 35 proud friends and family members enjoyed the fruits of their labors while they sat in the union’s Club Room for the first time. They heard our president speak about live performance and the importance of the union to music and musicians. They witnessed their children’s accomplishments and were deeply appreciative that 802 gave these kids the opportunity to be part of a professional musical organization.

As chair of the union’s Education Subcommittee, it was particularly rewarding for me to see Local 802 host Broadway Boot Camp. Six of the eight participating children play an instrument and are part of a school band or orchestra. These are our future members, and now they can say that they’ve performed live theatre with a live pianist in the Local 802 building, the home of live music.

Hopefully, we can host next year’s camp and continue to educate children and their families about the importance of live music, while helping the folks at Inside Broadway teach and nurture the talents of these kids.

More importantly, it is my hope that we will continue to pass down the great tradition of musical theater and enable children to have fun and bask in the pure joy of live performance.

Now, I’d say that was a great summer!

[Bettina Covo is a songwriter, composer, and singer, and a member of the Local 802 Executive Board and the chair of the union’s Education Subcommittee. This and the following story originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Allegro (volume 111, number 10).

[Broadway Boot Camp is a program for young people from Inside Broadway, a children’s theater company based in New York City which dedicates itself to the musical theater.  Inside Broadway (http://insidebroadway.org) has many other programs, including some directed at older theatergoers and some that run in schools.]
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by B. J. Gandolfo

Live music was an essential ingredient of Broadway Boot Camp. Local 802 member B.J. Gandolfo volunteered her time to play piano for the kids. She rehearsed and coached them in their songs and then accompanied them in the Friday showcase. She told Allegro why she said yes to this job.

When program director Katie McAllister asked me to come in and accompany their boot camp, working with her and Abigail Jones, I was very happy to do it.

As teaching artists, Katie and Abby not only know how to teach these kids all the aspects of being singing-and-dancing performers but they also make it fun and exciting.

This year, the students had some challenging songs to prepare. Some had key changes, tempo changes, or stretched their vocal ranges, but all the students worked hard on their music. With only a week to learn their songs, monologues and choreography, they did really well when it came time to perform them.

All of this was able to happen because Local 802 donated the space – for an entire week – in which the kids rehearsed and performed.

I am grateful to 802 for making that possible. I know it has made a difference to these young performers who will one day be facing the fights we face now. They will always value the summer when they performed with a live piano on the stage at Local 802.

[B. J. Gandolfo, a pianist, is a teaching artist with Inside Broadway and a member of Local 802.] 

*  *  *  *
by Bettina Covo

Kids get a taste of the magic of Broadway, thanks to innovative program

When kids get to hear live music, something magical happens. Twice a year, Inside Broadway brings children from various New York public schools to a Broadway production where they are given a once-in-a-lifetime experience – a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of a Broadway show. The program is called “Creating the Magic,” and I recently had the great pleasure of attending the latest production.

Inside Broadway is a not-for-profit organization whose self-stated mission is to “pass down the rich legacy of America’s musical theatre to future generations so that the magic, music, and universal themes of the genre are not lost, but rediscovered and made relevant for today’s youth.” Creating the Magic is one of the many Inside Broadway programs designed to educate schoolchildren about the importance and marvel of live performance on the Great White Way. Executive Director Michael Presser acts as the M.C. for the shows, which are produced by Nick Sala, associate producer and company manager.

The show chosen for this event was the current revival of “Annie” at the Palace Theatre. The show appeals to kids of all ages, with larger-than-life characters and classic songs like “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”

Close to 3,000 children from 25 public schools filled the theatre for both morning and afternoon shows. The excitement was palpable. When Michael Presser came out on stage to introduce the production, the roar of applause was deafening. But once the kids settled down, they were glued to their seats with rapt attention as they watched each demonstration and musical number.

The presentation was a seamless, tightly-produced 75 minutes of performances and fun-filled information that began with a brief history of the Palace Theatre. Throughout the show, representatives of the various Broadway unions were invited on stage to speak to the kids about their particular relationship to the show’s production. Presser, as well as the entire staff at Inside Broadway, are staunch union supporters. It is an important component of all their presentations – educating the next generation of children about the role of the theatrical unions, which help create the magic of live theatre.

Local 802 was proudly represented by Recording Vice President John O’Connor, who spoke at the morning show, and Financial Vice President Tom Olcott at the afternoon performance. Each addressed the audience about the importance of Local 802 and keeping the music live, as well as the wonderful efforts of Inside Broadway. They were perfect ambassadors for Local 802.

Cast members Ashley Blanchet (Lily), Jeremy Davis (Rooster), Merwin Foard (Daddy Warbucks), Liz McCartney (Miss Hannigan), Taylor Richardson (Annie) – plus “Sandy,” played by Mickey, a ten-year-old rescue dog – performed four numbers from the show. Michael Presser interviewed the actors (and of course the dog trainer, Dustin Harder) about their theatre backgrounds, allowing the audience an intimate glimpse into the lives of these thespians. At the end of the show, the kids asked questions directly to the actors, musicians and technicians – a priceless opportunity.

Peter Lawrence, the show’s production supervisor, demonstrated the innovative technology behind the sets and lighting as well as the sound and props. It was quite fascinating.

For both programs, the regular orchestra of 17 musicians was pared down to a rhythm section of Aaron Jodoin (piano), Dave Kuhn (bass) and Eric Poland (drums). The band was led by Associate Conductor Joey Chancey, who came on stage and addressed the kids directly. This was something that had been done only once before in the history of these programs, and it was much appreciated. It was refreshing to see the otherwise unknown and unseen conductor of a Broadway pit up on stage sharing the spotlight with the actors.

Chancey introduced the band as each musician played a few bars on their instrument. He then spoke briefly about the important role of the music director and described the missing orchestra instrument by instrument. It was short, to-the-point and informative and Chancey said he was thrilled to contribute to the event. “It was so exciting to be a part of what I know will be such a profound experience in so many kids’ lives,” he told Allegro.

The Creating the Magic events allow these children a rare opportunity to learn about the complexity of producing a Broadway show from the people who create it night after night. For many of these kids, this is their first time in a Broadway theatre. That alone is a powerful experience.

Michael Presser and the creative staff of Inside Broadway work hard to ensure the children have an enjoyable as well as educational experience where they learn about the organic process of live theatre. Like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy courageously reveals the man behind the curtain, these children learn that Broadway is about individual people – with their union behind them – working together to create the magic.

[This article appeared in Allegro in June 2013 (volume 113, number 6).]

*  *  *  *
by Bettina Covo

Kids learn the magic of live music at a summer theatre camp

Kids whose dream is to perform on Broadway have their own special camp every summer. Since 2010, Local 802 has hosted Inside Broadway’s Broadway Boot Camp. This year, the week-long camp – provided free of charge to the participants – arrived with some exciting changes for the attendees as this wonderful summer program develops and expands.

Executive Director Michael Presser and Program Director Katie McAllister have dreamed up a new name for the camp: Summer Stock Jr. Along with the new brand came some interesting changes in the program’s format.

Unlike earlier summers where each child would perform a solo song and monologue, this year students performed a half-hour show complete with five big production numbers that involved the entire cast.

The theme was melodrama. “Everything Old is New Again” – written, directed and choreographed by Inside Broadway’s teaching artist, Abigail Jones – included some tried and true melodramatic characters: the evil villain and her two cohorts who conspire to take over the town; the absent-minded “grandpa” who lives in the bygone days of vaudeville; the young hero and heroine who save the day; the double agent who infiltrates the show as an informant for the evil mayor; the frustrated director and choreographer who despite all odds, manage to pull off the show; the town diva; and, last but not least, the narrator of the entire show, replete with cue cards (boo, applause, etc.) to insure exuberant audience participation – of which there was plenty.

The student actors had their work cut out for them. The show involved extensive character work, singing, dancing, movement, improv and – in true melodramatic style – a lot of mugging for the audience. The entire show – including the five production numbers – had to be learned and perfected in the four short days leading up to Friday’s performance for family and friends in the Local 802 Club Room.

This year, I had the opportunity to witness the daily progress of the show (and participate as the audience, providing those crucial “boos” when prompted). It was fascinating to watch Katie and Abigail work with the students, critiquing and encouraging their talents, all while trying to create a cohesive show under very stringent time constraints.

For the first three days of Summer Stock Jr., students practiced their musical numbers to pre-recorded tracks. Then, the magic of live music arrived on Thursday when Local 802 member and pianist BJ Gandolfo arrived on the scene to play for the dress rehersal. Acting as musical director, BJ worked with the children, addressing individual vocal issues and pitch problems as well as the overall shape and quality of the musical numbers. After that, Abigail ran the entire show for the first time with BJ playing live.

The difference with live music was startling. It felt like someone turned the lights on. The kids came alive. Hesitant acting became boldly melodramatic. The dancing kicked. The songs popped. Melodrama abounded! Abigail had the freedom to change tempos and alter aspects of the show that were impossible to do using tracks. Everything flowed and moved. This could only happen with live music.

Ultimately, all the hard work and practice paid off. The show was wonderful. From start to finish, the students were visibly comfortable on stage hamming it up as BJ added just the right amount of comedic underscoring. The appropriate “boos” and “hurrays” – courtesy of our narrator – filled the club room as the actors successfully engaged the audience.

I spoke with two of the students about their camp experience. Melissa Fishman, 13, who played one of the villainous cohorts, has returned to the Inside Broadway summer camp for three consecutive years. Melissa plays the flute, piccolo, clarinet and saxophone. She excitedly told me, “I want to become a professional musician and join Local 802 as soon as I can.” Summer Stock Jr. has had a profound effect on Melissa, particularly being at Local 802. As she put it: “I want to teach the next generation of musicians all about the importance of live music.”

Ryan O’Connor, who played the role of narrator, is another 13 year-old returnee to Inside Broadway’s summer camp. Whether it’s performing on stage or working as a stage manager back stage, Ryan is interested in a career in the theatre. Ryan confessed to me, “After doing Summer Stock Jr., I am more confident. Performing in front of an audience is still scary, but it’s getting better every time I do it.”

When asked about performing with living, breathing musicians, Ryan explained, “Performing with live musicians is an important experience for me because something new happens every time I’m on stage. There is a sense of collaboration and flexibility that brings whatever I’m doing more to life.”

Through the combined efforts of Inside Broadway and their talented staff members Katie McAllister and Abigail Jones, together with Local 802, these fortunate children were given the unique opportunity to learn, rehearse and perform live musical theatre in the heart of the theatre district, in the home of live music: Local 802!

[The article above was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Allegro (volume 113, number 9).]

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