A real “thriller”

Five NJ middle schools stage a Michael Jackson musical at NJPAC.


More than a hundred New Jersey middle school students, with little or no knowledge of musical theater, became collaborative composers, lyricists, dancers, singers and scriptwriters as part of a program that lets kids put on a show at NJPAC.


For the fourth year, The Johnny Mercer Foundation/NJPAC Musical Theater Residency Program made it possible for students and teachers from five schools to learn the nuts-and-bolts of structuring a musical, from the opening number to curtain call. Beginning in February, NJPAC Teaching Artists were brought into the classrooms to lead page-to-stage sessions that included American musical theater history, script and lyric writing, rehearsal and performance.


Students in the participating schools – Union Hill Middle School in Union City, Heywood Avenue School in Orange, Terence C. Reilly School No. 7 in Elizabeth, and Harriet Tubman and Abington Avenue schools, both in Newark – chose the life and career of “King of Pop” Michael Jackson as the subject of their original musical, titled Life Beyond the Lights. The final performance, which was given on Wednesday, June 8 in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater, was programmed so each of the five casts presented a different segment of the show, guaranteeing everyone their moment in the spotlight.


The students took a what-price-glory approach to their tale of the pop prodigy from Gary, Ind. by writing scenes about his formative years with the Jackson 5, to the height of his success with The Wiz and Thriller, and later his physical deterioration and addictions. Girls and boys alike alternated in playing the roles of real-life personalities: Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, a villainous Joe Jackson and Michael himself. The score interwove a handful of original musical numbers (one was titled “Fake It ‘Till You Make It”) with Jackson’s greatest hits.


The namesake of The Johnny Mercer Foundation – the Hollywood songwriting great who reminded people to “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” – was a champion of the art of song and its value in educating the young through creativity and self-expression. In addition to sharpening the young actors’ memorization and storytelling skills, the process fostered teamwork, confidence and self-discovery.


“I think without music and art, we would just be bland,” observed Jordan Wallace, an 11-year-old from Abington Avenue School, in a recent TV interview with PIX11.


An important benefit is learning to listen to others, according to Jonathan Brielle, Executive Vice President of The Johnny Mercer Foundation, who spoke to the young troupers just prior to their performance. Coincidentally, two days earlier Brielle had opened his own musical, Himself and Nora at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre, which he wrote and composed.


“Listening is a skill you will carry for the rest of your life,” he told them. “I look forward to listening to what your hearts and minds have to say.”


June 13, 2016