Tony Award-nominated A Christmas Story writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Heidi Blickenstaff, Ashley Brown and Andrew Keenan-Bolger are among the artists taking part in the three-day festival that features student performances of shows including Hairspray Jr., Legally Blonde Jr., The Little Mermaid Jr., Fiddler on the Roof Jr. and more.
10:50 AM. We're chatting with Tony-nominated Christmas Story collaborators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose new production of James and the Giant Peach was recently staged at Seattle Children's Theatre.
Pasek and Paul will perform an evening of their material as part of JTF's weekend of events. Among the material they'll be highlighting will be James and the Giant Peach with cast members from the recent Seattle production.
"We'll be talking about the show with Tim McDonald, our book writer, who also runs the Junior Theater Festival," Paul said. "We get to introduce James and the Giant Peach to kids teachers and students, because our hope and dream for the show is that it will be in schools across the country."
Pasek added, "It's really accessible for kids, but it's also a little bit scary. It makes people lean forward when they're in the audience. Kids get to do something that's a little bit dangerous. In the first line, James' parents get eaten by an angry white rhinoceros! I think it's really exciting and fun. There's a lot of fantasy in the show and kids get to be crazy creatures. They're imaginations can run wild." Paul also described the style of the show. "The music ranges in style from latin to gospel to country. The show can also be done with seven or eight people, like we did in Seattle, or with a cast of 30."
With the aim to bring Giant Peach to schools in the near future, the authors also spoke about watching young performers take on their work. "We got to try out the show with a group of child performers a couple years ago. The show played in a way we had never seen before."
Pasek added, "There are two characters in the show, the evil aunts, who are usually played by women in their 50s. But when you have two sassy middle school girls playing these two British aunts... You've never seen anything like it. You're seeing a Patti LuPone in the making!"
We also asked the writers to tell us about the first shows they did as kids that ignited their passion for theatre. For Paul, it was playing Oliver in Oliver! Pasek laughed, adding, "I played Coyote in How Coyote Stole Fire, which I'm pretty sure is a show my teacher made up. Oh, and I was also in The Troll's Gift!"
11:30 AM. The students of Durant Road Musical Theatre, from Raleigh, NC, just performed an incredible production of Xanadu Jr. Yes, you read that correctly. The Tony-nominated musical that features a book by Douglas Carter Beane has been adapted for young performers. That fantastic choreography was created by two of the students in the production.
11:45. We chatted with iTheatrics chairman Timothy Allen McDonald, who described the scope of the festival. "We start with adjudication on Saturday mornings. We have 12 different stages going on at once, with 93 school groups from all over the United States. They each perform 15-minute selections from their Broadway Jr. musical. Tonight we'll showcase Legally Blonde Jr. and Shrek Jr., as well as Dinosaurs Before Dark, which is part of the Magic Treehouse series.
Arts education is a major focus of JTF and iTheatrics' mission. "Since 2008, when the economy turned, our schools and especially our arts programs nationwide have faced massive cuts," McDonald said. "I'm proud to say that none of our schools that participated in Broadway Jr. lost their funding. Tonight we have a great school performing, Bravo Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School from just outside Chicago. They went through two referendums to cut their arts programs completely. Partially because of us, those referendums did not pass. You can't cut a nationally-recognized, award-winning program, especially when people see it changes lives.
McDonald also spoke about the Broadway Jr. titles that most-surprised him. Definitely Finian's Rainbow Jr. because people thought we were insane and that it would never work. They thought kids wouldn't understand it, that it was too sophisticated. That wasn't the case. Xanadu Jr. is another one. PEople thought I was nuts, but what I understood was that Douglas Carter Beane wrote a book that was a brilliant take on Greek theatre. It was a great way to teach legitimate classic theatre and theatre history in a way that is really interactive because you experience it. The other is Into the Woods. People said, "Oh no, kids could never sing Sondheim." But you can see here at the festival and kids love it because it is sophisticated.
1 PM. Tony Award honoree Freddie Gershon, the CEO of Music Theatre International, summed up the festival. "We're here to make the world a better place," he said. "It's a celebration. This is a form of education. This makes for better citizens, for camaraderie, collegiality, for collaboration. That's what life is. These kids are taught history and all of these other classes in school, but they're not taught about how to get along with each other - about give and take. All of that is part of growing up.
"Each year there is a mini-revolution at this event," Gershon added. He singled out the positive impact Broadway Jr. has had on the students of P94. This New York City public school, also known as the Spectrum School, is dedicated to students on the autism spectrum. The school recently became part of the Broadway Jr. program and has seen significant positive changes in the students who participate. The students are being filmed by the non-profit Autism Speaks for a documentary film about their experience at JTF.
P94 students performed Disney's Aladdin Kids. Their teachers, Tom Pilutik and Scott Davis, spoke with Playbill.com about the experience. "It's been extraordinary," Pilutik said. "It's overwhelming finally being here, and being able to perform for other students."
"This has been really eye-opening to see what they're capable of," Davis added. "We didn't know what to expect and neither did [the kids]. They have been so professional. I think when you ask a lot from someone they just do it. For these kids, looking at a script can be an abstract experience, but once it relates to their own life it changes. Some of them don't really have an easy time with connection – it's too much stimulation – but their character does. In rehearsals we work on having them face each other and talk to each other. And then we see that they begin carrying that over into their every day lives. They begin responding more and looking at each other more and connecting. That's the most important thing, they learn to connect in a different way."
2:20 PM. We caught up with Cynthia Ripley, who directed the very first pilot Broadway Jr. production MTI ever released, Annie Jr. She shared some directorial tips for teachers:
- Don't be afraid to try everything.
- Try some out of the box techniques.
- Watch a million other people and see what works and doesn't work for them.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help.
- Ask for your kids' advice and opinions.
- You can put it on with just t-shirts and jeans, if you just start with a story you love.
- If the story reads to kindergartners, it will read to adults.
3 PM. Tim Federle, the author of "Better Nate Than Ever" and the soon-to-be-released sequel, "Five, Six, Seven, Nate," is at JTF for his second year. Prior to his career as an author, Tim appeared on Broadway in Gypsy with Bernadette Peters and The Little Mermaid. Tim also helped cast and coach the young performers for the Broadway production of Billy Elliot.
Tim shared his five essential tips for young performers:
- Your reputation starts the second you post something on social media. So be thoughtful about what you're saying about your fellow performers and the people you look up to, because Idina Menzel might see what you say about her on Twitter.
- Right before a big audition, when you're in the hallway waiting to go in the room, stand with your hands on your hips and your feet really far apart. It's a power pose that's a secret that some adult performers know about. It's scientifically proven to give you confidence before you sing.
- Don't stand with your arms crossed at an audition, especially at a dance audition. The best way to stand is with your arms by your side, or even behind your back, just holding one wrist. With your arms crossed you might be feeling a little tired, but it can look like you don't want to be there and that's not the message you want to send to the director or the choreographer.
- Everybody loves a good riff, but make sure to sing the melody that's written. When you're at an audition, the musical director wants to hear if you can really sing the song as written. So unless it's a song that's written to be a pop or rock 'n' roll ballad, it's best to sing the song as written.
- Not everybody can be cast in the leading role, but everybody can act like a star with their attitude and how they treat other performers. So be really conscious of the fact that your career and your ambitions as a performer will be marked by how you treat people more than how many shows you've been the lead in.
2:30 PM. Pasek just tore into "Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun" from A Christmas Story and Manolakos has returned to the stage to perform "Pretty Funny" from Pasek and Paul's Off-Broadway musical Dogfight.
2:50 PM. The cast of the Seattle Children's Theatre production of Pasek and Paul's James and the Giant Peach, which features a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, have flown to Atlanta to perform (original costumes in tow). Directed by SCT artistic director Linda Hartzell James and the Giant Peach ended its Seattle premiere Jan. 12. It was named Best New Musical by the Seattle Times.
3:05 PM. Pasek and Paul closed their concert by having 4,000 kids join them and Carrie Manolakos to sing three-part harmony on the song "Ready to Be Loved."
3:30 PM. The Freddie G Student Awards, which recognize achievements of the students participating at JTF are being presented. The ceremony is opening with the JTF All-Stars performing "All Over the World" from Xanadu Jr.
The winners follow:
Excellence in Dance:
Academy of Theatre Arts
FBC School of Fine Arts
Community Theatre of Greensboro
Hub Performing Arts School
St. Joseph Catholic School
Dawson County Arts Council
Curtain Call Performing Arts Center
Boothbay Region YMCA: Y-Arts!
Lopez Studios, Inc.
Harris County Carver Middle School
Excellent Achievement in the Broadway Junior Slam:
Anna Bragg, Choreography, River Trail Middle School, "Shipoopi" Music Man Jr.
Henry Howland, Performer, CCM Preparatory Department, "Shipoopi" Music Man Jr.
Nate Friant, Director, Boothbay Region YMCA: Y-Arts, "Colonel Hathi's March" Disney's The Jungle Book Kids
Courtney Chaney, Choreography, Boothbay Region YMCA: Y-Arts, "Colonel Hathi's March" Disney's The Jungle Book Kids
Randee Grant, Choreography, The SEED School Falcon Theatre, "The Golden Afternoon," Disney's Alice in Wonderland Jr.
Cullum Andrews, Performer, Olde Towne Hall Youth Theatre, Guys and Dolls Jr.
James Thomas, Performer, Holly Performance Academy, Guys and Dolls Jr.
Excellent Individual Performance by a Female:
Lauren Luther, The Center Players @ Arts of the Albemale
Nicole Roberts, Mt. Brook Junior High Choir
Olivia West, Curtain Call Performing Art Center
Shari Garrett, Holly Performance Academy
Emilla Coutore, International Community Players
Kristen Hall, Lakeside Middle School
Molly Spiroff, Naples Performing Arts Center
Gabriela Carballo, STA Drama Team
Lily Bartleson, Parkway Playhouse Junior
Hayley Covington, University School of Nashville
Angie Carballo, Skies the Limit Theatre
Jordan Budney, Moorestown Theater Company, Inc.
Excellence in Acting:
The Historic North Theatre
Queen's Grant Community School
Moorestown Theater Company, Inc.
Dare to Dream Theatre
Wings Performing Arts
Thomson/Feagin Mill MS
Naples Performing Arts Center
Faith Christian School
Ghostlight Performing Arts Company
River Trail Middle School
Outstanding Student Direction and/or Choreography:
Meghan McQueeney, MCP Troupe
Treston Johnson, Keeley Umstot, Mary Elizabeth Isett, Hub Performing Arts School
Madison Finney, Harris County Carver Middle School
Dana Grossman, Jayden McGrael, Durant Road Musical Theater
Katie Crabtree, Cara Flower, Danielle Heslin, RMS Drama
Rachael Henry, Savannah Sinclair, Spotlight Theatre Productions
Excellence in Music:
Magic Curtain Productions
Marietta Sixth Grade Academy
Riverside Children's Theatre
Cabaret Showcase Productions
Spotlight Theatre Productions
Ed Willkie Middle School
CCM Preparatory Department
Paul Laurence Dunbar MS
Stage Center School
North Hall Community Theatre
ACDS Tiger Entertainment
Excellent Individual Performance by a Male:
Seth Klima, Center Stage Productions
Alex Perlman, Mt. Brook Junior High
Aidan Lenehan, BRAVO!
Brandon Schmucker, Olde Town Hall Youth Theatre
Joseph Signa, Lakeside Middle School
Brennan Teutsch, Stage Center's School of Performing Arts
Ivan Silva, Mosaic Childrens Theatre
Casey Gulledge, Magic Curtain Productions
Corey Bradford, The Center Players
Aren Duffy, Moorestown Theater Company
Thomas Jackson, Central Community Theatre
Excellence in Ensemble Work:
Studio D Productions
Mount Paran Christian School
Garden City Recreation Commission
Asheville Performing Arts Academy
Woodruff School ACE Music
Portsmouth Area Children's Theatre
CharACTers Children's Theatre
Act 3 Arts Academy
MusicWorks Studio of Performing Arts
Community Theatre of Greensboro
Mt. Brook Junior High Choir
The Freddie G Inspiration Award,
Presented to students who have touched the hearts of the adjudicators in an inspirational way:
Corey Chandler, Parkway Playhouse Junior
Jaime Diassellis, River Trail Middle School
Malik Ten Eyck, The SEED School Falcon Theatre
Joshua Moore, Faith Christian School
Sharidan Giles Technical Scholarship,
Presented in memory of JTF stage manager Sharidan Giles, enabling students to further explore their interests in technical theatre:
Annie Kreitz, Dawson County Arts School
Jose Claris, Mosaic Children's Theater
Desmond Martinez, Woodruff School ACE Music
All Festival Performance Female Award:
Crystal Haley, Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School
All Festival Performance Male Award:
Matthew Bielak, St. Joseph Catholic School
Playbill.com also presented two awards at the festival:
Tiffany Dunagan of Queens Grant Community School won for Best PlaybillVIP design.
Boothbay Region YMCA: Y-Arts from Boothbay, ME (Arts for All), won the inaugural Playbill Community Service Award, recognizing the groups charitable efforts within their own community.
You can watch their video here:
9:15 PM. The JTF 2014 closed with Broadway and Beyond: An Evening with the Stars of Disney on Broadway!, featuring Heidi Blickenstaff ( The Little Mermaid), Ashley Brown ( Mary Poppins), Merle Dandridge ( Tarzan), Josh Strickland ( Tarzan) and Alton Fitzgerald White ( The Lion King singing songs from the Disney Broadway catalogue. Included were many Disney favorites from Aida, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, as well as rarely-hear songs, including "Never Again" (performed by Blickenstaff") and "This New Jerusalem" from King David, as well as "Made of Stone" from Hunchback of Notre Dame (performed by Strickland) and a new song from Disney's new Broadway musical Aladdin, titled "Somebody's Got Your Back."