When Alli Kramer of Amity Regional High School in "PLGEO100100205270000">Woodbridge and Shavance Stephens of the magnet school Regional Center for the Arts in Trumbull won top acting honors at the fourth annual Connecticut High School Musical Theater Awards in June, they knew they would go on to compete in the national awards program later that month in New York.
But they had no idea that the weeklong gathering would be part of "Broadway or Bust," a three-part documentary series on PBS that begins Sunday, Sept. 9, at 8 p.m. on CPTV and continues for the next two Sundays.
Kramer and Stephens were followed by a film crew as soon as they arrived together in Manhattan to join 58 other winning students from around the country to compete in the National High School Musical Theater Awards. In all, more than 50,000 teenagers at 1,000 high schools across the country participate in the program.
"We drove in together," says Kramer, 17 of Orange, "and when we pulled up they were waiting with cameras and a boom mike for us to get out of the car. We stayed in the car for a second because we were giggling — and a little bit shy at first."
But both students became less camera-aware as they were put through their paces in a week of auditions, rehearsals, coaching and the national competition itself held at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre. Constantine Maroulis (the "American Idol" star who was in Broadway's "Rock of Ages"), Deborah Cox (the upcoming Broadway revival of "Jekyll & Hyde" with Maroulis, "Aida") and Montego Glover (Tony Award nominee for Broadway's "Memphis") were among the Broadway professionals who acted as coaches and judges.
"We felt bad for the judges because everyone was so talented," says Stephens, 18, who graduated from Bunnell School in Stratford. This fall he will be a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University. Next year he will be attending Point Park University in Pittsburgh where he will be majoring in musical theater.
The 60 students stayed at the dormitories at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and rehearsed at the school, learning the songs and choreography for two big production numbers which open and close the awards show, as well as their own solo numbers. There was some down time, too, and the young performers took in a Broadway musical, "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
One of the highlights for Kramer was meeting Christian Borle, who stars in the NBC TV series "Smash" and who also won a Tony Award a few weeks earlier for "Peter and the Starcatcher."
"I was completely star-struck," says Kramer, who is going to be a freshman at Boston's Northeastern University, majoring in business and minoring in musical theater. "I told him I played Elle Woods in [Amity High's] 'Legally Blonde,' and I asked him a few questions about playing Emmett [a character in the show when it was on Broadway]." A snapshot she took is now her screen-saver on her smart phone.
Kramer and Stephens say there was a genuine feeling of fellowship during the week. "It didn't feel like a competition. It's not like 'Glee.' There were no Rachel Berrys," says Kramer referring to the TV series' ambitious character.
Kramer says when she was much younger she was a fan of the Disney's "High School Musical" and when she was in high school she was a "Glee" fan. "But now I've drifted more towards 'Smash' which is more about Broadway."
"When we were interviewed [for the documentary]," says Stephens, "we would be asked, 'Who is your competition?' But none of us wanted to talk badly about each other, 'We would say, 'We don't see it that way but if you want me to talk about people I admire...' "
Both students say they felt immense support from family and their schools.
"After I won the state competition at the Palace in Waterbury," says Stephens, "I went to school late the next day and my principal saw me come in and asked me how things went. I told him I won. So I went to second period class and five seconds after I sat down the principal's voice came on the P.A. system announcing to the entire school that I had won. It was cool. The whole day everyone kept wishing me congratulations and stuff.
"There's this idea in some people's minds that musical theater kids get treated differently," he says, "but you're also a person and I have a lot of friends in my home school in Stratford and they come to see the shows at my Magnet school.
Kramer says, "Amity High is a pretty diverse school in sports and the arts and so everyone supports everything, including the fall play and the sping musical. We were sold out two weeks in advance of 'Legally Blonde.'"
When asked to describe the final day of the national competitions, Kramer says: "Oh my God. I had to keep telling myself, so I wouldn't be nervous, 'I'm just back at Amity and I'm not really performing on a Broadway stage.' When I first the looked out to the audience [in the opening number] I was teary-eyed. But it also felt right to me, too. I think all the kids felt that way. We all worked so hard for this and felt we belonged there, too."
"For me," says Stephens, "it was a sad day and a happy day. I had a friend whose mom had died that day from cancer. When my chaperone told me that morning I completely broke down and I just couldn't go back into rehearsal. I was just in the next room, crying and crying. I had the solo in the show's opening number which was 'Circle of Life' and I thought I would have to give my part away to someone else. But everyone around me said, 'It's going to be all right' and 'You can get through this' and that night when I got on stage, I did it, I sang it, I loved it. The whole crowd loved it."
Life Changing Experience
The idea for the documentary series began more than a year ago when producer Lance K. Shultz proposed the project to Laurie Donnelly, an executive producer at Boston's WGBH-TV. They both went to New York and filmed some footage of the 2011 national competition which they presented in a pitch to PBS — which signed on for the 2012 shoot and series.
"PBS has been a strong champion of the arts," says Donnelly, "especially in a climate when funding for the arts has been dwindling."
The first episode of "Broadway or Bust" focuses on the state and regional competitions and four contests were chosen from different parts of the country. The second episode is about these state and regional winners arriving in New York for their week-long "boot camp" and their preparation for their big presentation in a Broadway theater. The third episode focuses on the final competition and awards show, culminating in the announcement of the top male and female winners.
"What came across was very powerful emotionally as we watch these kids from all walks of life living their dream and putting themselves out there," Donnelly says. "But for me it wasn't about the competition but this week-long, grueling process and their great personal stories. One girl was homeless, another kid endured bullying. Musical theater transformed their lives. It's very compelling and for many, an inspiring, life-changing experience."
One moment in the series that moves her to tears "is when the kids 'get it.' It just clicks. It takes place during the opening number of that final night. They're facing a competition, of course, but then they come together as a family, a kind of Broadway family."
Donnelly says she feels the event has the potential to become an annual series. "There's so much talent out there."
The spotlight on the high school musical theater competition has special significance for Connecticut which had theater students participating in each of the four years of the national competition.
In 2009, the first year of the competition, both Connecticut winners went on to be finalists at the nationals with Stephen Marks of Ridgefield High School getting the top male honor — and a full scholarship to New York University/Tisch School of the Arts coupled with a $10,000 prize. The following year both Connecticut winners, John Jorge of Amity High School and Katie Oxman of New Canaan High School, made it to the Final Four in the national contest. Both later received scholarships to Point Park University in Pittsburgh.
But it's not been an easy four years for the state competition, says Brett A. Bernardini, founding artistic director of The Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, who founded and directs the state's high school musical theater awards program.
Funding for the not-for-profit Connecticut Awards is thin and attempts to connect with professional theaters have been "frustrating" — with the exception of Goodspeed Musicals, says Bernadini. "We can't even get some of these theaters to present awards." Getting the state's colleges and universities with theater programs involved in the program has also been difficult, he says.
Only about 20 high scholls participate, says Bernardini. Sometimes, he says, it's theater politics (there's another Waterbury-based high school musical theater contest); sometimes it's the perception some schools have an advantage because of their more established programs; still other school administrators say they don't want their schools to compete unless everyone gets a prize.
"But its not about the awards," says Bernardini. "It's about helping to improve everyone's program. When Deep River won for best show of the year in June for its production of 'Titanic' it was the first year the school entered. The superintendent attended the awards show and after they won there was a big banner across the school celebrating the kids' accomplishment."
Bernardini says he doesn't want to expand the competition into Rhode Island but he is eyeing that possibility unless more Connecticut schools join in. (Schools have until Jan. 12 to decide if they want to participate in the program.)
Bernardini is encouraged about the 2013 competition at the Palace Theater in Waterbury where the previous three shows have been held and attracting a large audience. "We've already seen a greater number of inquiries from schools than previous years at this time and I expect that will grow after the PBS show is aired."
"My hope is that more people in the state become aware of us," says Bernardini, "but on a bigger picture, I want everyone to be aware of how important this work that these kids do and see how important the arts are to the schools."
BROADWAY OR BUST, a three-part documentary series will be presented on PBS-TV beginning Sunday, Sept. 9 from 8 to 9 p.m. and on two subsequent Sundays. Information: http://www.pbs.org.
Read Frank Rizzo's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain . And be the first to know by following Frank on http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz