MTI Broadway Junior Collection

Staging a Play, and Exploring Possibilities

In presenting 'The Music Man,' students learn dramatic lessons
about life and commitment, as well as theater.

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 ago.

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 conduct rehearsals.

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 reliable.

"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 the mail."

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."