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How to Make Broadway Musical Theater More Diverse... and Empower Kids Along the Way

06/08/2015 02:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

This week, when performers in Fun Home, Something Rotten!, and the other Tony-nominated musicals are polishing their best number to perform at Sunday's awards ceremony, another group of singers and dancers are basking in the glow of their Broadway debuts. They're elementary and middle schoolers, more than 1,500 children from 50 schools across New York City and the U.S. who have participated in remarkable private/public partnerships that support the development of musical theater at underserved schools. The difference between these groups of hardworking artists isn't only professional vs amateur, it's also about race: a predominantly white group of professional actors and amateur performers who are mostly students of color.

In 2005, the Shubert Foundation teamed with Music Theatre International and the NYC Department of Education to launch "Broadway Junior," a yearlong program that helps middle schools produce their first musical. Disney Theatrical Group created its own elementary school version four years later, now expanded to five cities. In each locale, Disney Musicals in Schools pairs with a nonprofit performing arts center, which chooses schools that demonstrate need and readiness. In the era of No Child Left Behind, private and public entities are joining with local school systems, the schools themselves, and dedicated teachers to introduce children to musical theatre.

The for-profit entity supplies kid-friendly scripts--30-minute KIDS or 60-minute JR. adaptations of famous shows like Annie and The Lion King--and music re-scored for young voices, as well as professionally orchestrated accompaniment CDs, teachers' guides with how-to instructions on auditions, rehearsals, and performance, and free licensing rights. Visiting teaching artists support classroom instructors as they learn the skills of musical theatre directors. Finally, the kids attend a professional Broadway (or touring) show for free.

After months of rehearsals, set-building, props-gathering, and costume-making, the children perform Godspell JR. or The Jungle Book KIDS for their classmates and their families. The program culminates with the casts from all of the schools gathering at a Broadway (or local PAC) theater for a showcase of musical numbers--one per school--hosted by a celebrity. The appreciative student audience applauds wildly for their peers' "Broadway debut."

Studies have shown the positive effects of kids' participation in the arts. Musical theater, because it combines theater, music, and dance, requires an extraordinary degree of collaboration. Children gain reading and interpretation skills; they learn to sing on key; they have to memorize blocking and choreography; they must connect what they say to their facial expressions and gestures.

I visited four Metro Nashville Public Schools--the first DMIS city outside of NYC, which started four years ago--and met with Tennessee PAC staff, teaching artists, and teachers who worked on their school's show all year. One teacher told me about a boy who learned to read through the rehearsal process. Another noted that "the children exert self-control and behave in class because they want to be in the show." A teaching artist said, "I see a change in confidence. In the beginning most students are shy and nervous. Through the rehearsal process they have to step out of their comfort zone and not be worried if someone is going to make fun of you." A 3rd grade girl told me, "I learned to be brave and that you always have to do your best and it's worth it." Every student I met said, "It was fun!"

In spite of ample evidence that the arts enhance children's intellectual and emotional development, funding continues to be cut across the country. And this is where corporations can step in. Skeptics might worry about Disney's over-reach: don't they already own the souls of our daughters who only want to be princesses? Haven't we heard "Let It Go" from Frozen more than anyone can bear? Others might fret that musical theater isn't Shakespeare or Ibsen but is popular, mainstream entertainment.

But these issues take on a different weight when economically disadvantaged children of color get the chance to perform. Students play any role, often across gender, and race-specific casting has no traction. They can pretend, take up space on stage, sing and dance. When kids are familiar with the stories and the songs, they're eager to commit to this ambitious project.

Over the past 10 years, these programs have supported hundreds of performances at more than 150 schools, with well over 10,000 children performing and almost as many helping backstage. Because the programs aim to seed what they hope will become sustainable musical theater programs, the sponsors gradually reduce support each year, which forces the school to take on more logistical and artistic responsibility. Almost all of the schools have continued producing musicals; some are now in their 10th year.

I saw a heartfelt and entertaining production of Alice in Wonderland JR. at Wright Middle Prep School in Nashville, in which three girls of different sizes were cast as Alice (at different points in her size-altering adventures), another three girls were cast as Cheshire Cats, and 30 other kids--almost all of them African American, Latino, or Kurdish--filled out the cast. As they sang, danced, and acted with ferocious commitment and electric enthusiasm, it was clear that this musical was an extraordinarily affirming experience.

And I thought about Broadway, so stubbornly white, and the Tony Awards, in which only three actors of color (of 20) are nominated for best performance in a musical. If musical theater will ever be racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, this is how it's going to happen, enabled by the organizational machinery, the adaptable repertoire, and the money of the rich corporations that own Broadway.

Though these programs' rhetoric is entirely about process and having fun--their materials say that they're not training professional actors--it's not impossible to envision a girl who debuted as Jasmine in Aladdin KIDS in 2015 landing the role on Broadway in 2025. In fact, it's hard to imagine she'll get there any other way.