In the mid 1990s, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim — two giants of the American theatre who, among many other credits, collaborated on West Side Story and Gypsy — posed a question to Freddie Gershon, the CEO of Music Theatre International: Where was the next generation of theatregoers going to come from?
The musical's decline from pop culture was apparent. "How could you miss it?" says Sondheim even now. "It's been going on for 40 years." The absence hadn't gone unnoticed by Gershon, either. "When I grew up, Broadway musicals were on the radio," he recalls. "The Billboard hits of the 1950s and '60s were the shows of Broadway. The Top Ten songs were 'Stranger in Paradise,' 'Steam Heat' and 'You Gotta Have Heart.' That was the music of America. You can't hear it now."
With that in mind, Gershon came up with the answer: bring Broadway to the next generation. Gershon enlisted artists whose work he represented at MTI — Sondheim, Golden Era songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the next generation of writers like Jeanine Tesori, Stephen Schwartz, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty — to reshape some of their most popular titles into a revolutionary model called "Broadway Junior." Through the Broadway JR. program, a "great big Broadway show" gets streamlined into a manageable hour-long version for young people. That version — along with everything else kids need to produce it, like scripts, accompaniment CDs and director's guides — is then purchased and performed by schools across the country.
Wicked composer Schwartz, who has two musicals in the Broadway JR. series, says, "For kids not brought up in New York or where professional theatre is being done, Broadway JR. can have life-changing impact. My parents took me to see a Broadway show at seven years old, and for better or worse, it set my future course because I fell in love with it."
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