They spend nearly five hours each weekday singing, dancing and
running around the stage of a scorching auditorium with no air-conditioning.
More than 100 students at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood
have been rehearsing "The Music Man" this summer in a national program
created by a Broadway producer who wants to instill concepts of
commitment and discipline in youngsters while inspiring their appreciation
of the distinctly American art form known as the Broadway musical
"I gave up going to Miami to do this," said Elizabeth Gavalda, 13, who
sweated through rehearsals last week. She plays a dancer in the 1960
classic about a charismatic con man who galvanizes an
entertainment-starved Iowa town at the turn of the 20th century.
"They work us real good," said Price Peterson, 12, who plays a farmer.
"It's fun, though."
The production that opens tonight was launched with the guidance of
former movie producer Freddie Gershon ("Saturday Night Fever" and
"Grease") and his Broadway Junior Collection, a national organization
based in New York that tries to interest students in live theater while
helping to motivate them in school.
Students at more than 60 schools in the region, including Warner
Elementary in Los Angeles, Bancroft Middle School in Long Beach and
Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach, have performed in Broadway
Junior Collection shows since Gershon founded the organization six years
The Collection supplied Walter Reed Middle School with a "Music Man" show
kit containing a choreographic video, producer/director guides and
scripts. The video demonstrates dance sequences and shows teachers
how to coordinate them, and the producer/director guides include
instructions on how to hold auditions and get a cast in order and how to
A former entertainment lawyer, Gershon is chairman of Music Theatre
International, which licenses rights to musicals. Schools are exempt from
licensing fees because the productions are tailored for children and
called "junior plays."
"This is not about making stars," Gershon said in a telephone interview
from his home in New York. "I want to expose kids to a world they've
never seen or touched before."
The enterprise has cost MTI's Broadway Junior Collection about $2 million,
with the majority spent on producing the show kits and adapting scripts
and music to make them easier for children to perform.
"Theater has lost this generation to arcades and video games," Gershon
said. "One day [composer] Stephen Sondheim and I were talking about
that, and he said going to a baseball game is great, but the best thing
about Little League is that kids get to be in it."
In Gershon's Little League version of theater, rehearsals are grueling and
can last several hours each day for months. The process can include
auditions and call-backs in front of a panel of teachers, who serve as
casting directors and producers.
"It's a fabulous opportunity because normally middle school students
don't get to do the big plays," said Walter Reed music teacher Janice
Kueppers, as she watched a rehearsal on a recent afternoon. "If they can
get up in front of an audience, they can talk in front of anyone."
Walter Reed teachers say the productions have helped students learn to
depend on and get along with one another. Attendance in summer school
has improved because students who do not go to class cannot
participate in rehearsals, they said. The program is open to all students
and every applicant is guaranteed a part
"We have a wide spectrum, from highly gifted to special education and all
backgrounds," said Yolanda Gardea, who has taught music at Walter Reed
for 17 years. "These are kids who normally wouldn't become friends, but
they all come together here."
The performances are tonight, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at
the Walter Reed Middle School auditorium, 4525 Irvine Ave. Tickets are
$7 for adults and $5 for children.
Several cast members said they have learned about life at the turn of
the 20th century from their work on "Music Man." For example, in the
play the mail truck comes around only once a month and is not very
"I had no idea how bad the mail delivery system was," said Price, a
seventh-grader. "They only got mail once a month. Now I really appreciate
During a recent rehearsal, director Jon Lee Cope, who teaches drama in
Ventura and Oxnard schools during the regular school year, yelled at cast
members from center stage, waving a clipboard and scolding those who
did not follow directions.
"Get in position!" he barked toward stage left. "A little louder! Louder!" he
shouted to stage right.
Cast members performed in front of student-made backdrops depicting
City Hall and Madison Library in River City, Iowa.
"They are amazing," said Cope, who acts in TV commercials when he is
not teaching. "They are enormously dedicated."