Inspiring Broadway’s future


Raider Times reporter Emily Carito (left) poses with Skylar Astin after an interview at the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, January, 2013.

Inspirational. Extraordinary. Spectacular. These are the best words to describe the one-of-a-kind adventure that was the 2013 Junior Theater Festival.

The world’s largest musical theater event, JTF dedicates a weekend each year to celebrating the young people who dream of becoming the future of musical theater. When JTF first started in 2003, only 650 kids participated. Since then, attendance has skyrocketed to 4,000 students and teachers this year! Representing 82 theater groups from 23 states, these kids are all over the map in terms of age, talent, experience, and organization (public/private elementary and middle and high schools, community theater groups etc.).  Diversity is replaced with unity as they all came together in January at the Cobb Theater Galleria in Atlanta for a weekend of music, performance, and jazz hands.



When all of the kids come flooding through the doors of the hotel on Friday night, each theater group is assigned a color-coded JTF T-shirt and put into a pod consisting of 6-7 groups each where they will perform first thing Saturday morning.

While competition isn’t the center of the festival, the students do compete and awards are given for outstanding performances both individually and as a group. The process is known as “adjudication.”  This is where each group puts on a performance in front of two judges, who are some of the best choreographers, actors, and directors working on Broadway. This is both nerve-racking and exciting for the kids, because they want to win the award for best performance in their pod.

The next 48 hours are spent in workshops, watching performances, and learning from some of Broadway’s best. This year, special guests included Alan Menken, Tom Schumacher, Briga Heelan, Skylar Astin, and — straight from Broadway the night before — cast members from “Newsies.”

Skylar Astin, one of the rising stars of Broadway and Hollywood, created a sensation at the Festival. Known for his role in “Pitch Perfect,” everywhere he went he was instantly mobbed by screaming girls begging for pictures and autographs. While his adoring fans were impressed with him, he was equally impressed with what he saw at JTF.

“This is every theater kid’s dream, and the energy in there is so positive and palpable,’’ he said. “I just feel like I’m at this all-star theater program, and it’s just an amazing feeling.”

While the kids all knew and couldn’t stop staring at Skylar, the two biggest names of Disney and Broadway were able to really blend in and interact with the kids.

Tom Schumacher is a producer and president of the Disney Theatrical Group, has helped produce some of Broadway’s greatest hits (“The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Newsies”), and has overseen 21 animated Disney movies. He was at JTF all weekend, as was good friend Alan Menken, one of the most famous composers of Broadway and Disney classics (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Newsies,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” and “Enchanted”).

Both Schumaker and Menken take pride in coming to this event and watching the future of Broadway express themselves.

“Their passion for it is something we all have, but as you grow older you have to deal with practicalities and making a living and you forget that we really got into all this because we love it,’’ said Menken. “And these kids, they’ve got the real love happening here.”



Anyone who has ever made a break in the movie or theater business can tell you that it takes a lot of bravery and hard work to follow your dreams.

Mike Faist, who plays Morris Delancey on Broadway in “Newsies,” understands what it’s like to take risks and make sacrifices.

“The best thing you could do is be persistent if this is what you really want, then you can’t let anything get you down,” he said. “A lot of the time the audition process is taking a bunch of darts, throwing them against the wall, and seeing which ones stick.”

Menken, a winner of eight Academy awards, hours earlier in the same conference room, had similar words.

“My big advice to everyone is, ‘Don’t get attached to results, just be attached to the process,’ ” he said. “Be attached to what you enjoy doing each moment of the day and then take what comes. Maybe success will come or failure will come, but it doesn’t matter.”



One of the highlights of the weekend is the New Works Showcase, when five musicals have their junior edition — Broadway plays that are edited and shortened for youth performers — premiered. Five groups from across the country are selected ahead of time and are given the honor of previewing these shows. The groups practice for months trying to perfect their performance for this one night.

Saturday night, the audience of 4,000 kids, teachers, and Broadway stars were brought to their feet with performances of “Aladdin” (dual language edition), “Xanadu Jr.,” “Pirates of Penzance Jr.,” and “Aristocats Kids.” The showstopper of the night, however, was “Hairspray Jr.,” which was performed by Bravo, the performing arts program at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, Ill., who brought the house down with their exceptional dancing, musicality, and acting. By the third song, the audience was up, dancing and singing along with the kids on stage.

As they took their bows, everyone in the room was on their feet, amazed at what they had just seen.

“I thought I was just going to watch some kids perform,” said Astin, “but to see them doing something so brave and difficult … to perform in front of 4,000 people, and they did it like professionals. I was just completely blown away.”

The most touching performance of the night was when Alan Menken was presented with the Broadway Junior Award. He wiped back tears and there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium as he sat on stage and watched a special performance in his honor of his own award-winning song “Be Our Guest.”

“It was very emotional, first of all, and it was a surprise,” he said. “They were looking right at me it was like a wave of love and it’s indescribable … That kind of acknowledgement is amazing.”



     During the weekend, there is some downtime between performances and workshops, but the singing and dancing literally never stops.

You would normally never see kids singing and dancing in school hallways, but at JTF the kids feel a sudden freedom to spontaneously burst into song.  In the connecting Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel, kids did splits and pirouettes in the halls and practiced their lines while riding in the elevator.

At JTF, the freedom of expression had no time limit.  At night, the singing could be heard 14 floors up from the atrium lobby well past midnight.



By 9 o’clock Sunday morning, the MTI ShowSpace Theater is filled with all 4,000 kids and parents anxiously waiting to see the all-star lineup.  The movie trailer from “Les Miserables” comes on the large video screens and when the screams die down, all 4,000 participants sing along to every song.

The day kicked off with a new segment called “Pathways to Success” during which the kids got to ask questions of people who were just like them not that long ago. This year’s guests included: Skylar Astin (“Spring Awakenings” and “Pitch Perfect”), Briga Heelan (“Cougar Town” and “Jane by Design”).

A short while later, the kids had the honor of listening to the musical magic of Alan Menken, learning about him and Tom Schumacher as they shared their experiences, backgrounds, and their love of musical theater.

In the afternoon, the audience was blown away with performances by Faist and “Newsies” castmates Kara Lindsay and Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who had performed on Broadway the night before. After singing, they answered questions from the kids and shared their pathway to success.

Then it was the moment that all the groups had been waiting for: the Freddie G Student Awards Ceremony. Here, between individual awards for singing, dancing, and acting, the best groups, one from each pod, performed a song on stage in front of 4,000 friends, fans, and peers.



JTF is not just about competition, but for giving positive feedback and tips that directors and students can take home with them. It’s about keeping musical theatre alive in the communities, as well as celebrating those who run student-powered programs. It is a positive, safe haven where kids from 8 to 18 can come out of their shells, express themselves without fear of judgment, and celebrate with other kids who share the same dream.

The National Junior Theater Festival gives kids, teachers, and famous mentors inspiring and incredible memories that they’ll take with them wherever they go.

“For me this taps into everything I love about the theater,’’ said Schumacher. “When I look at these kids, whether they want to be professional actors, stage managers or designers, or whether they just love the performing arts, I just love watching them put this whole thing together.”

The Junior Theater Festival isn’t about creating the future stars of Broadway, but to nurture and prepare these kids with the right tools to achieve their dreams, whatever they may be.

     (Raider Times staff writer Emily Carito is a junior at Watertown High School.)

–Oct. 22, 2013–