Something to sing about

Four middle schools have musicals in the making through a partnership with NJPAC and The Johnny Mercer Foundation.

When members of the Arts Education Department brief students on what they can expect from an NJPAC musical theater program in their middle schools, they don’t stand at the podium and recite the curriculum.

They dim the lights, strike up the band and put on a show.

For the second year, NJPAC will partner with The Johnny Mercer Foundation (JMF) to bring musical theater residencies into the classrooms of four local intermediate schools, engaging about 100 students. On Feb. 12, Arts Education told participating students all about it in a Musical Theater Kickoff – a performance that gave the young audience a taste of 21 classic and current musicals, from Show Boat to Memphis.

NJPAC Teaching Artists Janeece Freeman Clark (pictured) and Daryl Stewart portrayed students in similar circumstances: They expressed excitement – and a few doubts – about ever nailing the scope of American musical theater history and being able to create a show themselves. Under the guidance of their “instructor” – played by pianist and Teaching Artist Victor Burks, who accompanied the duo with drummer Sylvia Cuenca – they sang, moved and grooved their way through the lesson.

Mercer_300X232.jpgUsing a few props and items of clothing snatched from a coat rack, the performers transformed themselves into a parade of characters: Curley from Oklahoma!, Sally Bowles from Cabaret, Simba from The Lion King and Coalhouse Walker, Jr. from Ragtime. The audience was asked to join the action by helping with the chorus to “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess, clapping to “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from Hair and jumping in and out of their seats for Guys and Dolls’ “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

The orientation was designed to make them leave singing: The Johnny Mercer Foundation with NJPAC’s Middle School Musical Theater Residencies project allows students to create their own musicals under the supervision of resident artists, culminating in a springtime performance. Some of the theatrical skills they will employ include lyric writing, directing, playwriting and production.

“NJPAC has uniquely modified the JMF curriculum so that four different schools can work together to create a brand new musical,” says JMF Vice President Jonathan Brielle. “The story, music and lyrics are written by the students themselves, and on behalf of the entire JMF board, ‘It Is Too Marvelous For Words!’”

The Johnny Mercer Foundation, whose namesake is the famed lyricist, composer and performer, is dedicated to supporting songwriting in the tradition of the Great American Songbook. The foundation teams with people and organizations who are dedicated to the causes and disciplines championed by Mercer and his wife, Ginger.

Feb. 18, 2014

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