A collaboration between the NBC musical series and iTheatrics, which develops condensed versions of Broadway shows for students – packaged as Broadway Junior by Music Theatre International – the ambitious Make a Musical Program aims to establish sustainable musical theatre programs in underserved schools across the U.S.
Kelly D. Gillis, who is in her third year at the school as a theatre and special education instructor, is helping to shape and expand the arts program at the high school, which was among the first schools in the U.S. to receive a grant from the "Smash": Make a Musical Program.
"Three years ago there were 12 students in our theatre program. We now have approximately 40 kids performing, with 35 kids working backstage," Gillis said. This is an encouraging picture compared to what the school faced over the last decade.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, students were in class at the Leadership and Public Service High School when the planes struck the towers. The engine from the second plane fell onto the roof of the school, while subsequent explosions and building collapses in the area damaged the school so badly that the building was closed for over a year.
"It almost honestly destroyed our school," Gillis said. "A lot of the teachers who were present during 9/11 are still here. There were major heroic efforts on the part of the people who worked here at the time, who took two of our students in wheelchairs, flung them over their shoulders, and ran." In the days and months following the closure of Lower Manhattan, the Leadership and Public Service High School became one of the morgues used by recovery workers.
Students were moved to schools across New York City and when the time came to re-open its doors nearly two years later, many parents were reluctant to send their children back. "We had a breakdown, parents were afraid, kids were afraid," Gillis said. The once high-performing school saw its ranking drop.
A decade later, the Leadership and Public Service High School is making ground in regaining its academic standing and changing the emotional canvas of the student population. The lobby displays artwork students created to honor the 9/11 first responders, and today the windows of the school look out on to the newly unveiled 9/11 Memorial.
Part of this regrowth is the newly-thriving theatre program that Gillis and her team have spent the past three years cultivating. When word came from the New York City Department of Education that NBC's "Smash" and iTheatrics were funding musical theatre programs in schools, Gillis, with the blessing of her principal Philip Santos, applied for one of the grants. "I just thought, 'Let's fill out the application, God knows we need the money,'" Gillis laughed.
Within weeks they received the news that they had been selected. The students and faculty were elated.
"Inner-city kids are often overlooked, and it gave them a huge sense of pride," Gillis said. "What theatre does for kids and what theatre does for a community is remarkable. It has both adults and students actively engaged. They couldn't believe they were recognized. It made these kids feel very special and take themselves more seriously."
As rehearsals for Guys and Dolls JR got underway at Leadership and Public Service High School, parents, students and faculty began coming forward to help out. Calls came in with offers of paint and other needed production supplies, while students even chipped in their own money to purchase dance shoes for kids who were in need.
Rehearsals are "fun and loud" at the school. The two young women playing Sarah and Adelaide are relishing performing "Marry the Man Today," and while students are having a ball rehearsing "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" and "Luck Be A Lady," the atmosphere has permeated the academic and social setting of the school.
One student who was rarely in class now has a 92% average, while a female student who was often in fights has channelled her energy into the production, prompting the dean to notice that her name had not come across his desk in months.
Guys and Dolls JR is double cast, so that students have the chance to experience the importance of ensemble work and leading roles. The students are embracing the work, committing themselves to their parts and establishing characters. "They have become so much of a group. They cheer for each other when something goes well. For me as a teacher, I feel like 'task accomplished.' They take each other under their wing. It goes beyond what's scripted. The show will be fine, it will be better than fine, but it's that social aspect that happens during rehearsals that they will carry with them after the show is over."
"My students now have a family and they have somewhere to go," Gillis continued. "This helped them create positive relationships and they don't want to leave. Now they're in school where they should be, so if you're here for rehearsal, you might as well go to class."
Students are already asking what musical they will be performing next year. "The arts culture will exist because it won't be allowed not to," said Gillis. "The kids just wouldn't allow it. I already have requests for West Side Story! I'm very lucky to have a supportive principal who believes in arts programming."
The curtain goes up May 17 at the Leadership and Public Service High School not only on Guys and Dolls JR, but also on a new dawn for the students – report cards are going up and kids are getting into good colleges, according to Gillis.
"I think the tower going up while we're trying to build back up really resonates," Gillis said. "We are the phoenix that rises from the ashes."
Performances of Guys and Dolls JR take place May 17 and 19 at 6 PM in the auditorium of the Economics and Finance High School, located at 100 Trinity Place. Tickets, which are available at the door, are $6 for adults and $5 for children.