Student songwriters shine

The Johnny Mercer Foundation music theater residency ends every school year on a bright note.


Women’s rights, fake friends, bullying and sexual identity are improbable topics to weave together into a musical, but that was the challenge created and met by about a hundred middle-schoolers in the fifth annual NJPAC-Mercer Musical Theater Program.


Since March 1, students from five schools have been writing, composing and rehearsing their original musical, Flip the Script, under the expert guidance of their faculty and the creative team of Teaching Artists from NJPAC. The residencies, conducted in partnership with The Johnny Mercer Foundation, culminated in a packed performance at the Arts Center that showcased the youngsters’ new-found skills in lyric writing, dancing, singing, and even delivering a punchline.


Along the way, they discovered other lifetime takeaways, like collaboration, self-confidence and creative expression.


“This has been an amazing experience for our students, and brought out aspects of their talent we’ve never seen before,” said Cheryl Rogers, an English and drama teacher at Discovery Charter School in Newark. Other participants were Belmont Runyon School, also in Newark, John Marshall School No. 20 in Elizabeth, Lincoln Avenue School in Orange, and Passaic Gifted and Talented Academy in Passaic.


“You inspire me,” said playwright and composer Jonathan Brielle, Vice President of the Mercer Foundation, congratulating the students at the June 2 performance and acknowledging the clearly supportive families and teachers in the audience.


The plotline of Flip the Script centers on the relationship between athletic ninth-grader Jenna, who yearns to try out for the football team, and her friend, Skye, who feels pressured to fit in with a spiteful cheerleading squad – even to the point of changing her name to Jessica. Honesty, the loyalty of real pals, and an unintentional viral video combine to save the day in a homecoming dance finale. This year’s Mercer musical also appears to be the first to incorporate a crew of stepping, rapping and finger-snapping cheerleaders as part of the chorus.


“It was both surprising and remarkable that middle-school students chose social justice issues, like women’s rights, for their themes,” said Alison Scott-Williams, NJPAC’s Vice President of Arts Education. “We were fascinated to watch them develop their ideas about inclusion and inequity through artistic expression. They are the ones who ‘flipped the script’ on us by holding a mirror to social consciousness.”


Led by NJPAC musical theater Teaching Artist Janeece Freeman-Clark, the NJPAC collaborators in direction, choreography and stage management included Madeline Calandrillo, Ryan McGovern, Daryl Stewart and Doriane Swain. Students wrote five original songs under the wing of Musical Director and Teaching Artist Alex Ratner, who is currently assisting the orchestra of the Broadway show War Paint.


The Johnny Mercer Foundation is named for the Hollywood songwriting great who reminded people to “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” and championed the art of song and its value in educating the young through creativity and self-expression.


June 14, 2017