Finding out that you have received a Jonathan Larson grant, one of the musical theatre’s most prestigious awards, obviously elicits an excited response. But the reaction of Andrew Farmer, a 2018 recipient of the honor administered by the American Theatre Wing, almost got him detained. He was on line to clear airport security when he learned that he was not only a Larson winner but had also been championed by Patti LuPone, one of that year’s judges. In his acceptance speech, Farmer recalled that learning about the star’s support led him to emit “the biggest gay scream” imaginable, which, naturally, drew the attention of the TSA.
While other responses might be more measured, they are no less emotional. That holds true for the Larson, given to emerging songwriters, as well as the many other Wing programs, including the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative, which gives out grants to underserved schools and scholarships to its students.
“It’s where need meets opportunity, and opportunity matters,” says Heather Hitchens, President and CEO of the Wing. “We talk about theatre as a sanctuary, and for some of these kids, who have tremendous talent as well as tremendous need, theatre is literally a sanctuary.”
The Wing’s tradition of funding the next generation of artists goes back to 1940 and Angela Lansbury who, at age 14, was given a scholarship by the Wing. Along with her mother and twin brothers, Lansbury was fleeing Hitler’s bombs during the London Blitz and the Wing offered sanctuary as well as a leg up on her education. In the ensuing decades, hundreds more artists benefitted from the Wing’s largesse, including GIs returning from the war, such as playwright Joe Masteroff, singer Tony Bennett, actors James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer, and dancer and aspiring choreographer Bob Fosse.
Today, the Larson and the Lloyd Webber Initiative draw the industry’s attention to a highly diverse and talented group of aspiring artists covering a wide range of occupations, from composers to lighting designers, librettists to stage managers. As a founder of the Tony Awards, says Hitchens, the organization’s imprimatur give these young people a heightened visibility and a platform from which to network. They are also sustained by an ongoing interest in their developing careers.
“We’re not just ‘one and done,’” says Hitchens. “There are a lot of wraparound services. In the case of the Larsons, there is a public presentation, a recording grant, and access to residency programs. And with the Lloyd Webber kids, there are mentors, Training Scholarships, high school and summer programs, and then they can come back for University Scholarships.”
The benefits to the industry are manifold, evident from a quick glance at some of the Larson winners: Ty Defoe (Glow Variety Show), Shaina Taub (Twelfth Night), Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812), César Alvarez (Futurity), and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen). “These artists are moving the needle, broadening the idea of what theatre can be,” says Hitchens. “They dream big.”
Cognizant that some dreamers may not be aware of the Wing’s programs, the organization makes a concerted effort to find the most deserving, especially when it comes to the Lloyd Webber programs, which include Classroom Resources grants to underserved public schools, Training Scholarships, and University Scholarships. Helpful in that regard is the Wing’s network of teachers developed through the Excellence in Theatre Education Award from the Tony Awards. Indeed, it is what drew Andrew Lloyd Webber to the organization. “The Wing does a tremendous job of getting the money to all the right places, which I wouldn’t necessarily know,” says the composer.
Says Hitchens, “Some of these kids simply don’t have the resources for training that can allow them to compete against their wealthier contemporaries for slots at prestigious colleges. These scholarships level the playing field.” A case in point is Amara McNeil of Bristol, Connecticut, an aspiring lighting designer, who received a training scholarship to attend New York University’s Summer High School Production and Design Program and has just been awarded a four-year, $40,000 scholarship to study at Fordham University. A further plus is mentorship by lighting designer Natasha Katz, a six-time Tony winner. Another example is Jupiter Le, a transgender student from Boston who also just received a University Scholarship. The panel adjudicating the applications were moved by the passionate letter of praise written by Jupiter’s teacher.
If emotions run high among the recipients, they are more than matched by the adjudicating panels of theatre professionals; three, for the Larsons; between eight and ten, for the Initiative. “You better bring your boxing gloves because I’m going to fight to the death for my kids,” said casting director Bernie Telsey one year as he came into the room. Cynthia Erivo was equally forceful in arguing for Daelin Elzie of Texas, who prevailed with both a Training and University Scholarship to study acting at New York University.
Hitchens recalls one meeting where the budget only allowed for four scholarship recipients when six were deemed worthy. The agonizing continued until one of the panelists donated $10,000 toward expanding the number of scholarships—a gift that was immediately matched by two others in the room. That $30,000, in turn, inspired more gifts. “How could you not be touched by the stories of these kids?” says Hitchens. “There is a strong sense when we gather that we’re making a difference—for our industry and in the lives of these kids.”