The students in the Shubert Foundation/MTI Broadway Junior/New York City Department of Education program get first-class seats. At a Wednesday matinee of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, those from Middle Schools 61 and 634 from Brooklyn and Soundview Academy in the Bronx are not merely in the orchestra section. Some are as close as the second row at this Great Big Broadway Show. As a result, they can see the performers’ facial expressions – including the large smile on the face of star Nick Jonas.
He’s playing J. Pierrepont Finch, who, in just two hours and 45 minutes, will rise from a window washer to chairman of the board of World Wide Wickets. That means leapfrogging over president J.B. Biggley (Beau Bridges) and his terribly jealous nephew Bud Frump (Michael Urie). Along the way, Finch will fit in a bit of romance with attractive secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Rose Hemingway).
The kids laughed at seeing close-up Jonas’ ever-so-1960’s plaid madras jacket — just as their future grandchildren will someday chortle over what they’re wearing today. But as close as the kids have been to Jonas, they’ll eventually be even closer. Just before he starts singing “I Believe in You,” Jonas ascends on an elevator from the orchestra pit. “I can almost touch him!” squeals a young girl who couldn’t believe her good fortune.
Most of the actors spy the joy in the kids in front of them, so they look directly into their faces whenever they can to enhance the experience. Perhaps some students are seeing their first-ever Broadway show; these performers want to ensure that it won’t be their last.
“There sure is a lot of whispering going on today,” one secretary says, and it’s true not just on stage, but also in these student-lined rows. Oh, the kids are trying to be quiet, but their excitement takes over and at some points they just have to whisper a comment to their pals. Others nudge their friends and point to the stage so that no one misses anything.
Many of the young girls identify with Rosemary, who wants to keep her romantic relationship quiet, just in case it doesn’t work out. These kids may be young, but they’ve already played that room.
Even the so-called tough kids who entered the theater assuming that Broadway was simply for sissies think twice when they see the athleticism required for dancing. That ol’ comparison between dancers and NBA basketball players gains more and more validity as the show continues.
As Finch climbs the corporate ladder, many of the kids’ faces show astonishment. Some are undoubtedly wondering if the business world that many of them will someday join is really like this. (Yes. No. Maybe. All of the above.)
They’re also enjoying one of the funniest musicals in Broadway history. How nice to hear the mirthful sound of teenage laughter at a show that was originally produced before their grandparents were born. They’re silent, however, after J.B. Biggley says, “I can’t stay at home at night! I’m a married man!” Some years will have to pass before they can fully understand that joke.
When va-va-va-voomish secretary Hedy LaRue (Tammy Blanchard) spills the considerable beans on a secret, their hands immediately cover their mouths — as if doing that would somehow push the secret back in. But when the very-much-in-trouble Finch says he was once a window washer – and the company’s CEO turns out to be, too — they can’t help but clap in glee. Now they can stop worrying about him. He’ll be fine.
Meanwhile, I lick my lips in anticipation because I know what the kids don’t: they’re only minutes away from experiencing one of the great show-stopping eleven o’clock numbers, when Finch insists that there is a “Brotherhood of Man.” What wonders are in store for them! Because I’ve already seen this revival, I’ll spend the number not looking at the stage, but just glancing into the faces of kids that I know will show enchantment.
And that’s exactly what happens. Even those students who have just been sitting there slumping in their seats (to be cool and to show that they’ve already seen everything in their lives) suddenly to sit up and show wide smiles. At the end of “Brotherhood,” the roar I expected comes through along with a ton of applause – which comes from hands they hold high in the air. That, of course, is one of the best indications of intense appreciation.
During the curtain calls, there are some wolf whistles for Blanchard. Urie, the villainous Frump, gets applause that says that all is forgiven. And while standing ovations are reasonably common these days, these kids don’t know that, and they’re the first to rise. Says Nasir Campbell, from the Middle School 634, “I want to see it again!”
For now, however, they’ll get to interact with nine members of the cast, including Jonas and Bridges. Peter Avery, the director of Theater Office of Arts and Special Projects in the New York City Department of Education, will lead the question-and-answer session. Bridges, however, won’t wait for anyone to ask him what books will help an acting career. He’s already recommending Richard Boleslavsky’s Six Lessons of Dramatic Art and Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity.
After one student asks, “What it like to work on a musical?” they’re surprised when Michael Park (executive Mr. Bratt) admits that “I’m no dancer” and Blanchard concedes “I’m no singer.” You could have fooled them! Urie not only blithely answers that working on a musical is “fun,” but also stresses that “it’s like an aerobics class.” Then he points out that there’s even a considerable amount of running up and down stairs because dressing rooms are not right off the stage. That gets many kids in the audience to give each other wide-eyed looks that say, “I never thought of that!”
After a student asks how long the show had been happening, many are surprised to hear that the musical had started rehearsals on January 17, 2011. When they’re told that How to Succeed took less time than usual because it was a revival and didn’t need rewriting, they’re more impressed still. But the shock on their faces really increases when Urie tells them that he’d done the first reading in 2009. In an age where the Multiplexes throw out movies only days after they open, these kids didn’t expect that a show could possibly be in development or stay around for that long.
“What’s a reading?” a student wants to know, and while many contribute to the explanation, it’s short-circuited by Jonas’ arrival on stage. He soon tells them that what he liked best about Broadway, as opposed to film and TV: “You get to work with a lot of people for a long time.” With movies or sitcoms, it’s all over in a few weeks.
Urie embellishes that with “Theater is awesome because of you guys,” adding a generous gesture to the audience. “In TV and movies, you can only guess how people will eventually react. Here,” he says with a satisfied smile, “you get to know right away.”
Another student asks about creating characters. Blanchard tells of her journey with the curvaceous Hedy. “I first thought of her as a blonde bimbo,” she states. “Once they told me that I was going to wear a red wig, for the first time I gave a thought to making her smarter. Still, it took me a good month to know who she really was.”
Park says that “putting on the costume really helps to tell you who you are” – prompting a young girl to turn to her friend excitedly, as if to say, “I had a feeling that had something to do with it!”
Abby Church (Scrub Woman) says that teamwork is important to the success of any show. Blanchard agrees. “You may really let the other actors ‘in.’ You have to play with each other, because they’re your partners in this enterprise.” (And she doesn’t mean World Wide Wickets.)
When one student asks, “How do you calm your nerves?” the actors may have surprised the kids’ teachers who assume that these pros had parted company with jittery nerves long ago. But responses prove otherwise. Urie says that “There’s a misconception that nerves go away. What I do is channel my nerves and let them feed me. That way, they wind up helping me.” Church adds that “If you weren’t nervous, somehow the experience wouldn’t be so special.” Blanchard isn’t above saying that, “I say a prayer to God: thank you for the gift, the talent and the job. And sometimes, I just call my mother.” One girl’s head moves back in surprise at the mention of the word “mother.” Then face appears to register that maybe her own mother might be someone worth talking to, after all.
At the end of the session, Avery asks each of the actors to give advice to any budding performers. There was no shortage of opinions: Be yourself. Don’t be what you think they want. There’s only one you. Start training. Keep going. Use each other to help each other. If you don’t get cast, start your own show. Keep a journal and write down every experience you have, because you’ll use it in the future. Come from a point of passion. Have fun.
The kids had already taken that last piece of advice by attending How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. This afternoon of learning and sharing is sure to inspire the students in their own performances on a Broadway stage later this month at the annual Shubert Foundation / MTI Broadway Junior “Student Share” event. Break a leg, kids!
You may e-mail Peter at email@example.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com as well as his reviews for the Newark Star-Ledger on www.nj.com. His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.