MTI’s Broadway Senior Creates Musical Theatre for a New Generation of Performers—the Senior Citizen Generation

Interview   MTI’s Broadway Senior Creates Musical Theatre for a New Generation of Performers—the Senior Citizen Generation
 
The new program from the makers of Broadway Junior adapts classic musicals to meet the needs of seniors to life-affirming and therapeutic benefits.
Audiences at Juniper's Singin' in the Rain SR
Audiences at Juniper's Singin' in the Rain SR

A series of stage musicals re-conceived for seniors, created to enhance the quality of life in the “third act,” is now making its debut.

Music Theatre International (MTI) has announced the launch of Broadway Senior, a new series of adaptations of popular Broadway musicals specifically created for senior citizens.

Tailored to meet the needs of older individuals, these adaptations feature shortened running times and specific production resources, such bold-fonted and light-weight scripts, in addition to apps that allow performers to rehearse in their own keys, while slowing down tempos during rehearsals.

The program is the brainchild of Freddie Gershon, the co-chairman and former CEO of theatrical licensing powerhouse MTI, who in 1994 conceived of adapting and condensing Broadway musicals to be performed by elementary and middle school students.

That series, Broadway Junior, re-invigorated educational theatre globally and served as a blueprint for other licensing agencies, spearheading a seachange across the theatrical licensing industry. In the 25 years since its launch, there have been nearly 200,000 Broadway Junior productions, reaching over 5 million children. The program has become so integral that Gershon was awarded a Special Tony Honor in 2012.

The new Senior program isn’t about increasing revenue, it’s about improving lives—specifically for senior citizens, a rapidly growing segment of the global population who are often overlooked and underestimated in their desire and ability to engage and challenge themselves.

“It's about having a vision for what the future can be. It’s not what I'll see in my lifetime,” Gershon says. “No one's tried to get people in of a certain age to stretch this far, or to even consider that they're capable of it.”

“Don’t write seniors off,” says Gershon, a proud senior himself. “They are, in fact, courageous, and they want adventure and they're capable of it. I believe Broadway Senior will prolong healthy living and thinking.”

Gershon has spent the last year-and-a-half testing the program’s viability and heeding feedback from casts, communities, artistic directors, and audiences with a handful of senior communities cross the U.S., including Juniper Village in State College, Pennsylvania. The community’s proximity to Penn State University is a key component to the program’s success there.

By incorporating university students into the rehearsal and performance process, the performers are able to receive one-on-one attention and support throughout the experience, alleviating performance anxiety. This proves to be an intergenerational experience which is mutually beneficial.

But what Broadway Senior has really done is give these seniors renewed purpose, engaging them and their curiosity, encouraging positive risk-taking, and validation.

“So often in senior living we focus on what somebody used to do—what they did professionally, what their hobbies were, or who they were in their family. This is something totally new that people are discovering and being celebrated for now,” says Katie Kensinger, Senior Director of Communications at Juniper. “We had a 92-year-old cast member in our production of Guys and Dolls who began to sob after our first performance. He said, ‘I'm overwhelmed that the audience would respond to me, that they really loved it. I never knew what it was like to be an actor.’

“The focus of Juniper is to help people to live life vibrantly in their third act. Broadway Senior gives our residents a sense of pride and accomplishment, and they have renewed self-esteem, and a sense of purpose. They’re also building new friendships and are more engaged. One of our residents said, ‘I have something to talk about at the dinner table now.’”

The program has been able to reach people on a deeper level of mind, body, and spirit. For seniors, particularly those struggling with memory issues and dementia, musical theatre demonstrates therapeutic value.

“It's definitely accessible for people with dementia,” Kensinger says. “Especially the music. Even if they can’t follow along with the script and read lines, many of these songs are ingrained in their memory. There’s an emotional connection with music that patients will respond to long after they’ve stopped responding to anything else.

“That really helped us to refocus our approach to senior living. It's never too late open to new experiences and new possibility.”

Akin to Broadway Junior, the Broadway Senior series will feature author-approved 60-minute adaptations of popular musical theatre titles, catering to the tastes and capabilities of senior performers and audiences. Show-kits will include guides to address the use of walkers, canes, wheelchairs, plus the large-font scripts, and vocal books. The Senior materials also provides a piano accompaniment book for a live accompanist, who will bolster senior performers with real-time support during the performance, letting them perform at a comfortable pace, and allowing wiggle room if a line is forgotten or a musical passage needs to be repeated.

Residents at the Actors Fund’s Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, are about to help in Broadway Senior’s evolution with their upcoming pilot production of Singin’ in the Rain. And there’s already been tangible impact with senior participants at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with their pilot production of Into the Woods.

“I always wanted to be an actor, but I fell in love,” says Rebecca Marks, who plays Cinderella. “I took care of a lot of people in my life, and getting involved in this—being cast as Cinderella—makes me feel like a little kid. I said, ‘You know what? It's my turn.’ That's the whole thing. It's my turn now.”

“We are seeing a big shift in perception as far as what’s possible, and what our community here at Lenox Hill House can achieve,” says Rose Ginsberg, Assistant Director of Arts and Wellness at Lenox Hill House. “During callbacks we would tell people, ‘Please come in and sing for the role of Little Red Riding Hood,’ and they would say, ‘No, I should audition for the grandmother.’ And we explained, ‘No, all of the roles are for you. You can play any part.’ And that was a wonderful shift in thinking for everyone involved. It makes you feel ageless in a way.”

The production has been life-changing for husband-and-wife cast members Ed Snyder and Linda Creamer, who play the central roles of The Baker and the Baker’s Wife.

“I didn’t think I could do it, to tell you the truth,” Snyder says. “I had not really been a singer before and, I thought, ‘Why the hell not?’”

Creamer adds, “It’s exciting, but it’s also a challenge. At first I thought, ‘Could I really do that?’ And so many people are excited for me. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life, but this is it. I keep telling myself, ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever done.’”

What’s more, the shows find new life and new meaning, resonating with seniors as performers in new ways. “These words are really words of wisdom,” Snyder adds, “and we ourselves lived it, and we’ve seen it grow and evolve.” And with Broadway Senior they have an outlet to continue to do so for years to come.

According to Gershon, “the late Fred Ebb said it best: What good is sitting alone in your room? Come here the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret.”

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