Creating drama

Mercer Musical Theater Program hits all the right notes with educators and students.


No bones about it: Sticks and Stones, a one-act musical written and performed by students in the Mercer Musical Theater Program, was a hit – especially with the teachers.

Throughout the presentation on June 11 in the Chase Room, NJPAC teaching artists and classroom teachers took the stage to praise the originality, tenacity and creativity of the 118 sixth- through eighth-graders who participated. This marks the seventh year that NJPAC Arts Education has collaborated with The Johnny Mercer Foundation in engaging youngsters to discover their authentic voices through the art of songwriting, as exemplified by the enormously prolific music-maker, Johnny Mercer.

“Four months ago, this …,” teaching artist lead Janeece Freeman Clark told the students, sweeping her arms to encompass the stage and audience, “…didn’t exist. You created it, from page to stage.”

Jonathan Brielle, Vice President of The Johnny Mercer Foundation Board, also addressed the students before curtain. “When I saw you in February, you had no idea what you got into, right?” he joked with them.

“I’m happy and proud how you learned to listen to each other. And now, have a good time today.”

Classroom teachers from the five New Jersey schools in the program shared their stories with the audience – unprompted – about the enthusiasm and collaborative spirit shown by their students. They recalled shy youngsters who challenged themselves by taking leading roles; one educator watched third-graders grow up with Disney Musicals in Schools – a partnership of NJPAC and Disney Theatricals – and later pivot into the rehearsal demands and mature themes of the Mercer Musical Theater Program. Another teacher, whose school had no theater presence, received an email about the Mercer residency and described being “honored” when his application was accepted.

The schools, whose casts took turns performing a scene from Sticks and Stones, included Walter O. Krumbiegel Middle School in Hillside (assigned to enact the musical’s exposition); Joseph H. Brensinger School, PS 17, in Jersey City (rising action); John L. Costley Middle School in East Orange (climax); Rosa Parks/Central Community School in Orange (falling action); and Park Elementary School in Newark (resolution).

Brett Macias – who put the students’ words to music – remarked to the audience that he was grateful to the young thespians for giving him the opportunity to work on the score of his first rap musical. Egged on by the students, he busted a move and a rhyme as he returned to his bandmates to conduct the final scene.     

Envisioned and scripted in 20 sessions, the students’ dialogue and lyrics for Sticks and Stones center on high-schooler Serenity, who is emotionally neglected by her politician mother and verbally abused by her stepfather. Running away from home, she joins a street gang in New York, then, in despair, contemplates suicide. Love and loyalty win the day, however, when Serenity reclaims her sense of self-worth and discovers a way to inspire others.

“People: Get off the ledge,” the students sing in the musical’s title number. “Don’t make it the end/Whatever happened at home/Know you're never alone/Stand up and sing with us/from the downs to the ups/we know that life is tough/So get off the ledge/let life start again/Get off the ledge/let life start again/Let life start again.”

June 27, 2019