A Broadway Debut for Hundreds of Middle School Kids

June 4, 2013 Updated: June 4, 2013

NEW YORK—India Humphrey, 11, sat in the back row of Broadhurst Theater on Broadway on June 3.

“I’m very nervous,” she said.

On the following night, Tom Hanks would face the audience in the same theater as part of his debut season on Broadway. But India was nervous about a different kind of debut—one of her own. In a short while, she and her classmates from M.S. 634 in Brooklyn would take the stage to perform “Rain” from a junior version of “Once on This Island.”

Ariel Piere, 11, would play “Storm” in that performance, and she said she was nervous as well. Ariel and India practiced with their classmates for six months leading up to June 3. They were led by an unlikely producer: Solange Isidore, India’s and Ariel’s humanities teacher.

This was Isidore’s first time producing a stage performance with the children from M.S. 634. During the six months of practice, some students surprised her with their dedication, and some flourished because they had showed talent to begin with. Taking it all in, Isidore said she was happiest to sit back and watch everyone “adapt to change and come to life.”

“I have some kids that I teach during the day that are very shy, and to see them get on stage is very fulfilling,” reflected Isidore. “I’m very proud; words can’t explain it.”

For many, Isidore said, the past six months and the upcoming performance would become a stepping stone in a performing arts career. For the rest, the self-confidence gained and shyness shed would help on whichever path they choose.

“I think it helps tremendously with their self-confidence, with their social skills, with envisioning themselves as performers and trying to do something with a group of people that’s really hard,” noted Edward Miller, program manager at ArtsConnection.

Miller is one of the many people who made India’s and Ariel’s Broadway debut possible. ArtsConnection is part of the The Shubert Foundation/MTI Broadway Junior program. It links middle school teachers with teaching artists, who visit schools and show teachers how to guide their kids in creating a musical theater piece.

Middle School Musical

It used to be that only high schools put on shows of their own, but when Music Theater International (MTI) offered the program to middle schools as an experiment eight years ago, it quickly caught on. On June 3, for the eighth year in a row, it culminated with a performance on a Broadway stage.

India and Ariel were not the only ones having a debut—hundreds of children from 17 middle schools performed. All of them were part of the Broadway Junior program, which is operated through a partnership of MTI, the Shubert Foundation, and the city’s Department of Education.

When Broadway Junior first started, there were eight schools participating. Since then, 40 schools have participated in the program and 27 are currently enrolled.

“Now we’re getting inquiries from different urban areas around the United States, from big cities [that] want to know what they can do to start a program like it,” said Freddie Gershon, chief executive officer of MTI, the nation’s leading theatrical licensing company.

“It helps with their reading skills; it helps with their attention span,” said Gershon. “We started this idea with the Shubert Foundation, and it turned out to be everything we wanted it to be.”

The Shubert Foundation is one of the oldest professional theater companies in the world. It operates almost half of all Broadway theaters.

Broadway Junior is designed with sustainability in mind: Schools get 100 hours of support in their first year and 50 hours in their second year. They are expected to sustain the program on their own from then on—and many have.

Let the Show Begin

It rained outside on the morning of the performance, but inside Broadhurst Theater was filled with smiles and cheers. Children chatted and laughed as the audience poured in, but all became quiet as the show began.

The applause was electric, and the audience cheered each time a new group of students took the stage. The cheers became near-deafening when the host, Broadway actor Tim Federle, asked all of the teachers involved to stand up and take a bow.

There were moments of fame as some lead singers wowed the viewers, but there were moments of compassion as well, with the crowd clapping and cheering for those who forgot their lines.

Each time a new group took the stage, a student would come up to the microphone and share his or her experiences leading up to the show. The theme was the same throughout: kids learning to make friends, becoming self-confident, and having lots of fun.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said India.

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @ivanpentchoukov