Unless you’re fortunate enough to go to performing arts high school, there is no “How to Write for Musical Theatre 101.” Yet we’re seeing more and more that we need to nurture young talent. The National Endowment for the Arts, Playbill and Disney Theatrical Group have teamed up to give high school writers their big break. In its inaugural year, The Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge will source talent from three states, working with The Office of Arts and Culture in Seattle, WA, Big Thought in Dallas, TX, and the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Minneapolis, MN.
Open to high school students who live in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas County, and King County—with hopes to expand nationwide next year—the competition calls for young hopefuls to submit a recording of an original composition in order to foster artistry and creativity in teens. While not limited to any particular musical style, submitted songs must be original and part of “a musical theatre story.” Local panels in each district will choose a single finalist (or two-person team) to fly to New York City for a songwriting workshop with professional musicians, singers, songwriters and producers. In this last round of the challenge, professional singers will perform the finalists’ songs for judges from the music and musical theatre industry. The grand prize winner will receive a $5,000 scholarship award provided by the National Music Publishers’ Association Supporting Our Next Generation of Songwriters. Their winning song will also be published by Sony/ATV. Runners up will also receive a $2,500 scholarship award.
While Seattle, Dallas and Minneapolis aren’t the first cities that come to mind as musical theatre hubs, the NEA handpicked each of the three participating arts organizations to launch the pilot year of the challenge. Each received grants from the NEA in the past, fostering the relationships that led to this collaboration. What’s more, these organizations implemented arts education programing for secondary school students as the schools’ curricular programs fell victim to a lack of funding.
The NEA worked with the cities to design the competition in an effort to challenge young people and support them in cultivating their voices. Each city will provide workshops and classes to help students prepare their submissions, while also introducing the young writers to other students that share their passion.
Aside from cultivating young songwriting talent, Lara Davis, arts education manager for The Office of Arts and Culture, points out the advantage of arts programming for all kids in this age group. “We know that there’s a strong relationship between participating in the arts and success in school,” she says. “High quality learning really depends upon students bringing their culture and perspectives to bear through arts creativity.” Prestigious organizations like The Guggenheim Museum and The Rand Corporation have found substantive proof that arts education coincides with better reading and writing proficiency, higher math scores and improved community cohesion. With arts programs being cut every year across the country, opportunities like the Songwriting Challenge are becoming increasingly important.
Even a city like Dallas, bursting with arts and entertainment, suffers a lack of arts programs for secondary school students. President of Big Thought, Gigi Antoni, sees the Songwriting Challenge as a way for young artists to receive formal training not offered in schools. “Kids need to be heard,” Antoni explains. “They need a forum to share their point of view, and they need recognition. This does all of those things.” Antoni cites the incorporation of rock and roll, jazz, spirituals and rap into contemporary musical theatre in shows like American Idiot and Hamilton as examples of youth culture participating in the evolution of musical theatre. The music in these successful shows reflect what many young people are listening to and show them that their own contemporary styles are welcome in the community. Furthermore, shows like American Idiot tackle issues students face in their own lives.
Particularly for Minnesota students, this program may be the only opportunity they get to interact with the theatre industry. Harsh winters isolate the state, making it difficult for people to travel—even from city to city—to consumer theatre. A paid-for trip to New York City opens the world for young artists.
Davis, Antoni and Mackert all stress that this is not a competition between their cities. It is a celebration of the artistry that exists nationwide. “One of the essential parts of creating a piece of art is sharing it with others,” Antoni explains. “Being heard and also connecting with other young people who are interested in the same things that you’re interested in, those things are really important in developing yourself as an artist.” Mackert adds, “I would be remiss if I didn’t thank The National Endowment for the Arts, Playbill, and Disney Theatricals for believing in the power of recognizing and encouraging student artists. It shows that these major groups can reach into states and say, ‘We’re all together.’”
Sue Mackert, executive director at The Perpich Center for Arts Education, knows the importance of exposure to the arts for any career path. “Creativity is becoming important in the workforce. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 97 percent of employers say creativity is the most important asset, but they are unable to find creative applicants. An IBM study showed that 1,500 corporate leaders all indicated that creativity is the most important leadership quality.” The Songwriting Challenge legitimizes creativity from an early age. At a time when college looms large and kids consider their futures, the fruits of this competition prove that creativity can take you anywhere from CEO to songwriter.
As for advice to applicants, Davis says, “This is an opportunity to speak your truth, to share your voice and to talk about the things that are meaningful and relevant to you in your life, school and community. What you say is critical, and we have the opportunity to be informed by your voice. Speak your truth. Share your work.”
Are you an aspiring composer? Do you know one? Be sure to visit Arts.gov/songwriting to submit to the Challenge by April 4!