Thousands of children in New York have received their first taste of the great Broadway musicals not along the Great White Way, but a little farther uptown at Merkin Concert Hall. They may have sung along to songs from Hello, Dolly or West Side Story, or come on stage to participate in a game inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Created in 2007, Kaufman Center’s Broadway Playhouse series introduces the next generation of theater fans to the great composers and lyricists of American musical theater. Through mini-musicals, sketches, medleys, sing-alongs and participatory games, kids learn the history and creative process behind musicals by composers and lyricists such as Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Alan Menken.
While these popular Sunday morning concerts are a fixture on the calendars of many New York parents, it’s less well-known that Kaufman Center presents Monday morning Broadway Playhouse performances for school groups at little or no cost, and has developed an innovative, Broadway-themed curriculum. Thanks to a program underwritten by TD Bank, half of the tickets are available free of charge to students at Title 1 public schools, which serve a large percentage of low-income families. Last year, children from six schools attended the Monday performances. In 2012 that number grew to nine, with 1100 enthusiastic budding theater fans from schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan getting to know the musicals of George and Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim and “Yip” Harburg.
Both students and educators have responded enthusiastically to the Broadway Playhouse school program – called “Broadway Schoolhouse” – which reaches many children who would not otherwise have the opportunity to see a musical. “Broadway Playhouse has offered my students a once in a lifetime experience,” says one teacher whose students attended this year. “Many of my students have a true love for music, but due to the cost are unable to experience it firsthand. They left the theater with a new appreciation and understanding of the arts. The shows have opened their eyes to a new source of entertainment that will forever be a part of their lives.” Another teacher explains, “Many of my students are unable to afford food and clothing, let alone tickets to see a live show. They discuss the [Broadway Playhouse] program all the time and are constantly caught singing the tunes while they work.”
Broadway theater is a powerful educational tool, says Sean Hartley, host and producer of Broadway Playhouse. “American musical theater and the Great American Songbook are two of the most highly evolved art forms from the U.S., with jazz being the third,” he explains. “Musical theater is the most potent form of expression because it combines so many elements – visual, music, dance and song. It’s a powerful way of telling a story and captivating for children.” Hartley wants to acquaint children with a vibrant part of their heritage, and also to inspire them to participate in an art form they themselves can be part of by acting, singing, dancing or writing. It’s important for children to get away from their computers and video games and see live theater, he emphasizes. They should meet performers, writers and composers to learn what they do and come away with an understanding of what they themselves could do. “Here’s a whole industry they can enter,” says Hartley. Introducing children to the arts is especially crucial at a time when education is increasingly narrowed down to testable functions. Theater gets kids interested and helps them understand life in a different way than, say, learning math and reading skills, Hartley observes. Kids can be literate, but their imaginations can be starving.
Several of Broadway’s biggest names have enthusiastically endorsed Broadway Playhouse. “I was pleased, astonished and impressed that Sean Hartley and Company had been able to capture the interest and attention of young audiences while acquainting them with some of my work,” says Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick. “Since these youngsters are the theater audiences of tomorrow, all I can say is ‘Bravo!’” Charles Strouse, composer of Annie and Bye, Bye Birdie, agrees: “Broadway Playhouse is a valuable and enjoyable vehicle for getting an important segment of our kids (and adults) connected with the theater. It couldn’t be more important to an American tradition.”
Soon after establishing the school program, Hartley realized that the student audiences were quite diverse. While some of the kids knew Broadway musicals, many had never seen one and had no context for understanding, for example, Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hammerstein. “We realized that we needed to support the learning by providing a curriculum guide to prepare kids and contextualize the musicals,” he explains. Together with Broadway Playhouse interns Liz Crone and Lena Park, Hartley developed a curriculum guide that helps teachers prepare their students for the concerts and to enhance their learning before and after. Now in its second year, the guide includes background material on the writers, lyrics and CDs of songs taught in the concerts as well as many activities – including writing original lyrics, designing posters and writing plays – that give children a deeper insight into the creative process. The curriculum guide also introduces a historical context for writers, giving kids a taste of U.S. history. In order to teach “Yip” Harburg (lyricist for The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Ranbow), for example, it’s necessary to talk about the Great Depression and blacklisting. Teachers have enthusiastically praised the guide. Because recordings and lyrics were sent to her before the show, says one teacher, “I was able to engage and educate my students about the songs that they were going to sing ahead of time.”
Broadway Playhouse player Gabriella Stravelli believes that performance is a valuable educational tool because it encourages children to be more extroverted. “I think it has the same effect as a public speaking class, but it’s way more fun,” she says. “Kids are naturally creative and playful, and musical theater is a perfect tool to allow kids to use those positive natural tendencies.” While the performers have to work a little harder to win over school groups since kids tend to be a bit rowdier when attending performances with their peers rather than their parents, she notes, “This year, I was really impressed by the school groups. They were very engaged and participated fully in the games we played on stage, and they all had lovely comments for us after the show.”
Given the positive response to the school concerts and the clear benefits to the students as well as a long waiting list for tickets this season, Hartley hopes to expand the Broadway Playhouse School Program. This season he introduced free classroom visits to some of the schools, allowing students, whose primary experience of performance is often on TV or online rather than live, to learn about performing and singing in public and gain more skills-based techniques for creating music. Next year, with the support of the Johnny Mercer Foundation, Kaufman Center will launch “Lyric Notes,” a residency program with visiting artists that will give underserved children in Title 1 schools the opportunity to write their own lyrics and gain a better understanding of how songs are actually written. Hartley is also working to raise funds to present an entire week of school matinees at an Off-Broadway house. At an intimate house with about 200 seats, kids will get closer to the performers, he says. He also wants to bring kids into the theater district so they’ll become familiar with the area. In an ideal world, Hartley would like to make sure that every child at New York City public schools had the opportunity to see at least one live musical theater performance every year and received visits from someone from the performances. He would also like every child to participate actively in a musical theater production by singing, dancing, acting or writing. “I guarantee you test scores would go up!” he asserts.
For more information about the Broadway Playhouse School Program, please call 212 501 3366.