Darren Criss is the festival headliner, and will perform a concert for all attendees Jan. 17. The program will feature songs from his Broadway and television career. Other scheduled guests include Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Corey Cott and Ryann Redmond.
Timothy Allen McDonald, founding chairman of iTheatrics and the Junior Theater Group, is joined at the 2016 festival (#JTF16) by Tony-nominated composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, A Christmas Story, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach), Philip McAdoo (The Lion King and Rent), Brad Simmons (“Camp,” Lysistrata Jones), Jacob Brent (Cats); Cory Lingner (On the Town); and the writing team Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel (Camp-Wish-No-More, My Little Brony).
"The 2016 Junior Theater Festival is our eleventh festival," said McDonald. "From the beginning we have designed this event to shine a spotlight on the importance of young people having access to quality musical theater programs. Our JTF audience continues to inspire us. At the festival and at home, these teachers and students encourage each other to find more and more creative ways to tell their musical theater stories and build better and better programs. Furthermore, they create a groundswell of support and appreciation for the arts across the nation. Their energy, commitment and passion are thrilling."
Produced by the Junior Theater Group in partnership with iTheatrics, a leading educational theatre company which works to ensure students everywhere have access to quality theatre programs, the Junior Theatre Festival is the world’s largest festival celebrating young people and the transformative power of musical theatre.
This year’s title sponsors are Music Theatre International (MTI), Disney Theatrical Group and Playbill®. The Junior Theater Festival was founded in 2003. In 2010 the festival became an annual event. Playbill will present The Playbill Community Service Award. All groups attending the Junior Theatre Festival are encouraged to document their organization's community service projects. Five finalists are highlighted on Playbill.com, where the public can vote on its favorite (until 11:59 PM ET Jan. 15). The winning organization will receive $1,000 to support continued charitable efforts as well as Playbill’s educational resources—including PlaybillEDU.com, a complete guide to undergraduate music, dance and theatre programs around the country; and PLAYBILLder.com, a DIY program maker allowing schools to personalize an authentic Playbill online.
In the spirit of celebration and not competition, each student group at the festival will perform a selection from a musical for a panel of theatre professionals. Both students and teachers will participate in interactive workshops led by Broadway and West End professionals, gain from professional development and enjoy theatrical fellowship.
“The Junior Theater Festival is our new year’s celebration and the energy and excitement surpasses anything that you’ll find in Times Square. It’s the most remarkable thrill to experience the power and joy of student-driven musical theater with thousands of young people, teachers, Broadway professionals, and leaders in education and theatre. We celebrate each other, exchange ideas and take our love for and commitment to this art form to new heights. Each of us leaves the weekend with a renewed commitment and understanding of how we will bring our personal best to the next year,” says McDonald.
The festival will shine the spotlight on the next generation of composers and artists during Pathways, a Q&A event in which Broadway writers talk candidly about their experiences and present works from new shows. This year’s Pathways will feature the songwriting team Pasek and Paul (Dear Evan Hansen); New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult and songwriting team Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel (Between the Lines); songwriter and music director Rob Rokicki (The Lightning Thief); composer/lyricist Matthew Lee Robinson (Atlantis, Happy People) and performer Lingner (On the Town). Joining them in performance will be Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen); Megan Rozak (winner of national If/Then contest); Janice Landry (Japan tour of Disney on Classic with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra); Corey Cott (Newsies) and Ryann Redmond (If/Then, Bring it On: The Musical).
The festival will also host pop-up concerts featuring the works of Anderson and Samsel, Rokicki and Robinson with performances by Rozak, Landry, Cott, Redmond, as well as J.D. Daw (Forever Plaid, California Musical Theatre and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera House), Luke Holloway (Million Dollar Quartet), Janice Landry and Martin Landry (first national tour of Murder for Two).
This year, the festival honors the 20th anniversary of MTI CEO Freddie Gershon launching Broadway Junior, the first educational division in a major musical theatre licensing firm, which created the educational musical theatre market. Broadway Junior musicals are developmentally appropriate versions of classic and popular shows designed to be directed by teachers and performed by students. All Broadway Junior musicals include the materials needed to produce a show as well as educational resources tailor-designed to the needs of schools, teachers and students. Beginning in 2010, the festival has paid tribute to Gershon’s vision by naming its student awards "The Freddie G’s."
"Twenty-some years ago Freddie Gershon shared the concern of a number of musical theatre creatives that the next generation of musical theatre supporters and artists were being lost to budget cuts and videos games,” says McDonald. "Freddie decided to create a first-ever multi-faceted educational musical theatre program that would make it as easy as possible for anyone anywhere to stage their own successful production. At the 2016 Junior Theatre Festival thousands of students and teachers will join us in paying tribute to 20 years of Broadway Junior and Freddie’s leadership."
There will be special author meet and greets with Andrew Keenan-Bolger, whose "Jack & Louisa," written with Kate Wetherhead, will be published by Penguin Random House in February; Mary Pope Osborne, author of the international sensation "Magic Tree House" series of books and musicals; and New York Times best-selling-author Jodi Picoult ("Between the Lines").
At the New Works Showcase, select groups will perform selections from new musicals that will soon be made available for licensing by MTI. Bradley Academy Musical Theatre in Murfreesboro, TN, Roy Waldron Elementary Drama and University School of Nashville in Nashville will present Peter Pan JR.; Community Theatre of Greensboro in Greensboro, NC, will present Madagascar JR.; and Eastern Shore Repertory Theatre will present Magic Tree House: A Ghost Tale for Mr. Dickens JR. Students from Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School’s BRAVO! Program in Oak Park, IL; Harris County Carver Middle School in Hamilton, GA; P.S. 124 Theatre Club in New York City; and Uptown Music Theatre in New Orleans will come together to honor the 20th anniversary of Broadway Junior with a medley of Broadway Junior songs.
Additional Junior Theatre Festival celebrity guests include designer Theresa Squire (High Fidelity and The Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway); Morgan Rose (first national tour of Shrek the Musical, Dear Edwina); Peter Avery, the Director of Theatre for the New York City Department of Education; Ken Cerniglia, dramaturg and literary manager for Disney Theatrical Group; Lisa Mitchell, Senior Manager Education Outreach for Disney Theatrical Group; Nick Pramik, director of the Marketing and Partnerships division at Spot Co; and artistic directors from leading children’s theatres: Michael Bobbitt of the Adventure Theatre, Rosemary Newcott of the Alliance Theatre and Ernie Nolan of Emerald City Theatre.
Eight exceptional educators from schools and performing arts centers around the country will be selected for the seventh annual “The Freddie G Fellowship,” in which the teachers will receive an all-expense-paid trip to New York City to collaborate with each other and work one-on-one with Broadway greats. Each winning teacher will also receive a $5,000 grant to put towards his or her theatre program. The event is underwritten and hosted by Freddie and Myrna Gershon and is a thank-you for all that teachers do to introduce the next generation to Broadway and musical theatre.
There will be a tech track in which students interested in technical theatre train with professionals. A select group of these student technicians will be invited to work side by side with festival staff in running the tech for main-stage festival events.
Each group may also nominate up to four students to take part in the “Tech Olympics,” in which students complete an obstacle course of technical theatre activities—ranging from performing a quick change and focusing a light to pre-setting props and taping the floor—within the fastest time.
The festival will award the third annual Sharidan Giles Technical Theatre Award Scholarship to the technical theatre student who most exemplifies commitment, curiosity, collaboration and creativity in technical theatre. Giles was a respected theatre production manager and technical director who mentored countless technical theatre artists and was one of the first women admitted into her local branch of The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States union (IATSE local # 50).
While the Junior Theater Festival is not about creating the stars of tomorrow, many of the stars of today have played a role. Past festival attendees have included Zac Efron, Skylar Astin, Andy Jones, Kara Lindsay, Henry Hodges, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken, Jeanine Tesori, Kenny Leon and Seth Rudetsky.