Friday, August 12, 2011

New Stars Are Born

On September 26, 1957, when West Side Story opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, audiences were shocked and awed by the way Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, had been updated with the Capulets and Montagues being replaced by street gangs on the Upper West Side. The show's second act dream ballet catapulted Tony and Maria out of the slums and into a fantasy world of peace and acceptance.

If one approaches the lyrics to "Somewhere" from a different perspective -- replacing rival street gangs with the rivalry between artistic students and their school's jocks and cheerleaders (who frequently taunt and bully them) --  one comes up with the formula for Ryan Murphy's hit television show, Glee.
"It's not us! It's everything around us!
Then we'll find some place where nothing can get to us.
Not one of them, not anything.
And I'll take you away,
Take you far, far away out of here,
Far, far away till the walls and the streets disappear,
Somewhere there must be a place we can feel we are free,
Somewhere there's got to be someplace for you and for me.

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere.

There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
Some day. Somewhere.
We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving

There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're halfway there.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Somehow, some day, somewhere!"

Whether you prefer the way a high school prom night turns into a teenage gore fest in 1976's Carrie or the kind of geeky creativity shown in 1984's Revenge of the Nerds, misfits have found a way to steal the spotlight with increasing success.

The struggle faced by a child to identify his talent, understand the gift he has been given and -- against all odds -- stoke the ambition required to pursue an artistic career is not always understood by his parents. Although the 1968 Broadway musical, Golden Rainbow, was primarily a vehicle for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, songwriter Walter Marks delivered one number that became a popular hit for both Lawrence and Sammy Davis, Jr.  Here's Steve Lawrence singing "I've Gotta Be Me" during the 2005 MDA Telethon.

Rather than being ostracized as losers, many of today's gifted children find a wealth of opportunities waiting to help them develop and polish their craft.  From music conservatories and computer camps to musical theatre training programs run by community and semiprofessional theatre groups, today's adolescents are being encouraged to express themselves and pursue their dreams. Whether through beauty pageants or reality shows like America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, and American Idol, they at least know where the path to success might begin.

Aspiring teenagers can look to entertainers like Rosie O'Donnell (who got her big break on Star Search) or veterans of the 1990s All New Mickey Mouse Club (Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, and Britney Spears) to examine the early arc of a performing career. Most important, however, is the fact that the information available to them at least gives them hope.

Once upon a time and not so very long ago, public school arts programs included a marching band; male, female, and mixed choruses; drama and poetry clubs and, in some cities, programs like SING! During the 1980s the dumbing down of the American education system -- combined with the tragic loss (due to the AIDS epidemic) of so many potential artists  -- decimated the talent pool.

With this year's demonization of teachers, school librarians, and the glorification of standardized testing, the empowerment of young talent is often left in the care of music conservatories, private dance schools, and community theatre groups. While children find a great deal of encouragement from what they see on television and in movies, there are certain easily identifiable turning points that deserve credit for planting the seed of inspiration in their minds.
  • Each December, productions of The Nutcracker bring young ballet students onto the stage.
  • In 1975, A Chorus Line lit a spark in the hearts of many aspiring performers.
  • In 1977, the runaway success of the musical, Annie, created an ongoing need for talented young girls.
  • Beginning in 1988, when Hairspray hit the silver screen, the John Waters tale of a politically active fat girl (Ricki Lake) winning her high school's dance contest helped audiences to see past their prejudices. Not only did Hairspray make stars out of  Ms. Lake and Divine (a 300-pound drag queen with a cult following), the subsequent Broadway musical and movie musical of Hairspray opened up a whole new market for fat young actresses to play Tracy Turnblad (as well as talented young black dancers to play the role of Seaweed J. Stubbs).
  • In 2000, Billy Elliot won hearts worldwide with its tale of a poor young boy in a mining town who developed an interest in ballet. Since being adapted for the musical stage, Billy Elliot the Musical has created an ongoing demand for teenage boys who can dance ballet, sing, and act up a storm.

* * * * * * * * *
Flash Forward ten years. Billy Elliot the Musical has won four of the 2006 Laurence Olivier Awards (including Best New Musical) in London; seven of 2008's Helpmann Awards (including Best Musical) in Sydney, Australia; six of the 2008 Green Room Awards (including Best Musical) in Melbourne, Australia; and 10 of the 2009 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in New York. In 2010, the show also won South Korea's award for Best Foreign Musical.

With touring productions now sprouting up and many community theatre producers waiting for the rights to become available, Billy Elliot the Musical could easily become as big a franchise as Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, or The Lion King. The big difference is that Billy Elliot the Musical employs more children than the other three musicals combined.

Stephen Daldry (who directed the film as well as the sage musical) has found a special joy in watching all of the young boys who alternate in the title role.
"Playing Billy is like playing Hamlet while running a marathon. Not only is the character onstage for the better part of three hours, but he sings, acts, speaks with a Northern English dialect, does gymnastics, and dances in a variety of styles. Working with these boys has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my professional life. It’s a gift to be so involved in the lives of such talented young people.”
J. P. Viernes is one of the boys
portraying Billy in the touring production of
Billy Elliot the Musical (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

In the following video, a series of boys can be seen performing Billy's big number, "Electricity."

While many videos of young men performing the role of Billy Eliot are now available on YouTube, the following two may be the most intriguing. Featuring resident choreographer Jeffrey Edwards and four of the boys who portray Billy Elliott onstage (Jacob Clemente, Alex Ko, Dayton Tavares, and Liam Redhead) these segments were taped on September 7, 2010 during a White House Dance Series Student Dance Workshop.

Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay and show's book (as well as the lyrics to Elton John's music) stresses that:
“You can’t just look at Billy Elliot as a piece of theater, because it actually transforms the lives of these boys. If there had been no Billy Elliot, if these boys had not been discovered for the role, then they would not have flourished in the way that they do. Their growth is almost a symbol, a metaphor at the heart of the piece. We actually demonstrate that it is possible, if everyone pulls together, to achieve something quite extraordinary.”
The touring version of Billy Elliot the Musical is currently on display at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre through August 21. While the production benefits immensely from Faith Prince's portrayal of the sarcastic Mrs. Wilkinson, the excessive amplification is enough to make a person's head explode.

Faith Prince, Daniel Russell and the ballet girls in
Billy Elliot the Musical (Photo by: Kyle Froman)

My favorite part of the show occurs when young Billy makes a spiritual connection with his older self. It is a moment of theatrical magic that offers the kind of thrill one expects to find in a Cirque du Soleil show rather than a Broadway musical: pure goose bumps.

Lex Ishimoto and Maximilien A. Baud in a scene from Billy Elliot the Musical
Photo by: Michael Brosilow
The following video clip shows the five young boys performing in the role of Billy Elliot in the national touring production (Ethan Fuller, Lex Ishimoto, Kylend Hetherington, Daniel Russell, and J. P. Viernes). Each is phenomenally talented in his own right. Together, they're a formidable team of performers.

* * * * * * * * *
Speaking of formidable ensembles, the talented young performers from Glee can now be seen in a special release entitled Glee: The 3D Concert. Filmed over two days at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey (where the cast was performing in Glee Live! In Concert!) the film stars Dianna Agron (Quinn), Chris Colfer (Kurt), Darren Criss (Blaine), Kevin McHale (Artie), Lea Michele (Rachel), Cory Monteith (Finn), Heather Morris (Brittany), Amber Riley (Mercedes), Naya Rivera (Santana), Mark Salling (Puck), Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina), Harry Shum, Jr. (Mike), Chord Overstreet (Sam), and Ashley Fink (Lauren).

An extremely high-tech stadium event executed with military precision, the film is as much a high-powered be-in as it is a heavily (and quickly) edited concert. What makes the movie so compelling, however, are the human interest stories of the various Gleeks who are interviewed for the film. They include:
  • Janae Meraz,a cheerleading dwarf who gets taken to the school prom by one of the jocks and ends up being named Prom Queen.
  • Josey Pickering, a young woman with Asperger's syndrome who found the courage to go outside of her house after watching how the characters on Glee dealt with adversity.
  • Trenton Thompson, a young, black high school student who was forced out of the closet after the boy he had a crush on read his journal and passed it around to all of the other students.

While the 3D movie is highly entertaining (the young women seated around me sang and shrieked at all the right moments), it's an especially powerful vehicle with which to reach and inspire adolescents to explore their talents, find out what makes them special, and start to articulate an artistic dream. The intensity of excited screaming may not have changed much since the days of Frank Sinatra and the Bobbysoxers, Elvis Presley, or The Beatles, the synergy which allows Ryan Murphy's team to market an artistic phenomenon like Glee on many levels while building a new generation of stars is very much a product of new media. A concert like the one shown in this film is today's equivalent of The Mickey Mouse Club on steroids.

Glee has inspired parents (many of whom are having as much fun during the concert as their children) to more actively celebrate whatever talents and/or differences their children may have and love them all the more for exactly who they are. In an era when far too many teachers and school administrators allow bullying to continue -- and when arts education programs have been stripped of so much vital funding, it is Glee that is providing the emotional safety net for many of today's schoolchildren who remain at risk. For that blessing, we all own Ryan Murphy a deep vote of thanks. Here's the trailer:

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