"School, for me, was just what I had to survive in order to make it to rehearsal after school," says Tony Award–winning In the Heights star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. The born-and-bred New Yorker got his start as Conrad Birdie in the sixth grade production of Bye Bye Birdie. He recalls being "twelve years old and three feet tall. And all the girls in sixth grade had to pretend to be in love with me. I looked around and said, 'I'm doing this for the rest of my life!'"
Height wasn't exactly the issue for nine-time Tony-winning director and choreographer Tommy Tune, who, as a teen, was "frightfully skinny," he says. As a young dancer growing up in Houston, TX, Broadway was a myth, says Tune: "We didn't have road shows. I only knew about Broadway through what I had heard and read, and from listening to the LPs. But we were the only school in the city that did a musical."
Tune got his start choreographing his school's production of The Pajama Game and slinked his way through the number "Steam Heat," which is scripted as a one-woman, two-man trio. "Because I was the only guy who danced in school, we fixed it that instead of Gladys doing it, I danced it with two girls. That brought down the house," Tune laughs.
Northport, Long Island native Patti LuPone credits inspired teachers and a strong music department with solidifying the passion and skill that would ultimately lead her to tackle Evita and Gypsy on Broadway. "I played Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Kate in All My Sons," she says. "Northport High School [shows] were always sold out because the community supported us and in return expected a high standard, which we delivered — if I do say so myself!"
LuPone still remembers her days on the auditorium stage as "the proudest moments of my high school years. I'm grateful to all of the teachers who gave up their free time to inspire us. We were renowned, darlings!"
While LuPone was stepping into musical roles made famous by Mary Martin, Tony Award-nominated Finian's Rainbow star Kate Baldwin was wearing out LuPone's Evita LP in preparation for her own hometown starring role.
"My senior year of high school the drama teacher chose Evita. I played Eva Perón, but at the time, I hadn't learned how to belt!" Baldwin says. In those years, she was polishing her soprano with classical voice lessons. "Needless to say, that kind of training didn't help my desire to sound like Patti LuPone. I remember singing everything that I could in my legit head voice, the definitive moment being, 'He supports you, for he loves you, understands you, is one of you!' in 'A New Argentina.' If anyone found it funny — as I do now — I was blissfully unaware."
Another Tony nominee warming up his voice at a young age was Rock of Ages's Constantine Maroulis, who caught the performing bug after seeing his older brother in West Side Story. Ten years later, he had his own chance to audition for his school's production. "I thought, 'I'm going to get Tony,'" he laughs. "And I failed miserably. I couldn't even get the song out. But they put me in the ensemble as one of the Jets. That's where I learned everything."
Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt cut his teeth doing double duty as the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods. "It was one of the most important experiences of my life," Kitt says. "I was given quite an education about the power of musical theatre. Performing in the show was one of the early moments that inspired me to become a writer for the musical theatre."
Both Miranda and Kitt are now seeing their musicals roll out in productions across the country. "I cannot wait until high schools start doing In The Heights," Miranda says. "The shows you do in school become a part of your emotional vocabulary for the rest of your life. I can't believe our show will be a part of that tradition one day."
Tune knows all about that tradition. He lent his name to the Tommy Tune Awards, which recognize excellence in high school theatre in his hometown. "I know what theatre did for me," he says. "My drama teacher, who saved me, is gone now, but this is my chance. It's the lineage. I'm passing it on."