Skip to content


kids master masterworks


To be sure, we savor many wonderful songs when we hear the original cast albums of ANNIE, INTO THE WOODS, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and OLIVER!

And yet, when we see and hear children sing selections from these scores, we get an additional treat.

The Junior Theater Festival, held last month, saw kids perform hits from these four musicals as well as eighteen others. Forty-three groups hailing from Boothbay Harbor, Maine to The British Theatre Academy, mostly clad in T-shirts and pants, staged musicals from the Music Theatre International catalogue.

The seeds of the festival were sown a quarter-century ago when MTI’s Freddie Gershon slimmed down his company’s many musicals into hour-long versions that could be more easily performed by grammar and middle school students. He reasoned that mini-musicals might become gateways to spur kids’ interest in Broadway.

The plan has worked, for a musical theater awareness and renaissance have resulted. The visibility and interest that hadn’t been in evidence during the previous generation has been supplanted by new TV and big screen musicals, many more recordings of scores and this Junior Theater Festival.

It was founded by Timothy Allen McDonald of iTheatrics, a company that aims to spread musical wealth. His festival has students perform fifteen-minute excerpts – or junior versions of the Junior versions, if you will.

Since 2003, schools, clubs and groups have come to the festival in Atlanta; last year nearly 7,000 students, teachers and parents congregated. Alas, the festival had to be virtual this year, but that didn’t totally dampen spirits. Even Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who’ve written works as markedly different as A CHRISTMAS STORY and DEAR EVAN HANSEN, did an hour-long concert that stay-at-homes could watch.

But the main event will always be the student presentations. Although participants usually perform unamplified, electronic help was employed this year because music and lyrics had to be heard through masks and/or clear plastic face shields.

Did The Spotlight Players from Mint Hill, North Carolina even know of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE before director-choreographer Jason Porter selected it? The 1967 film that spurred the Tony-winning musical might not have been on students’ radar; many kids aren’t much interested in movies and musicals that take place before they were born. So what of MILLIE which proudly proclaims “This is 1922!” in its Oscar-nominated title song? Besides, its sheet music calls for “Hot Dixieland swing” – a style that today’s students have little or no familiarity.

Nevertheless, these kids have embraced it. We’re not told the performers’ names in order to stress that these presentations are group efforts. But huzzahs to the lad who enacted Jimmy’s debonair and carefree “What Do I Need with Love?”, the lasses who stressed Millie and Miss Dorothy’s need to know “How the Other Half Lives” and Millie’s frenetic and in-denial “Forget about the Boy.”

MILLIE borrowed a couple of songs that predate 1922, and here too the kids sang with a gusto that suggested they enjoyed “My Mammy” (1918) and even “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” (1910). Did some kids wind up becoming Al Jolson or operetta fans after hearing and performing them? As Cole Porter wrote, “You never know.”

Assuming that the kids studied the Grammy-nominated cast album, there must have been such agony (especially from Millie) when “Gimme, Gimme,” the eleven o’clock number that cemented Sutton Foster’s Best Actress in a Musical Tony, couldn’t be included. Oh, well; this gifted Millie may well have more chances to deliver the song and get cheers.

Speaking of Sutton Foster, she was A Star-to-Be in the 1997 ANNIE revival. That turned out to be true, and might have been for Laurie Beechman, who’d originated the role twenty years earlier, had her life not been cut short by cancer.

These thoughts surfaced during ANNIE, offered by the Pioneer Players from The North Whitfield Middle School in Dalton, Georgia. More than two dozen “orphans” populated the stage, many more than Broadway had. Here’s hoping that they all fell in love with the now-classic score, still one of Masterworks Broadway’s best-sellers.

How exuberant everyone was with “N.Y.C.” Few from this north central Georgia town (pop. 33,571) have probably been to New York, but that didn’t stop them from showing unconditional love for the city.

“Go ask the Gershwins and Kaufman and Hart” A Star-to-Be sings, which may have made the kids ask who these people were. Perhaps some will become so interested in Ira, Moss and both Georges to seek out CRAZY FOR YOU, OF THEE I SING or LET ‘EM EAT CAKE.

“Easy Street’s” sheet music demands it be done “nice and mean” which this Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily accomplished. And “Tomorrow”? The last great optimistic show song – following SOUTH PACIFIC’s “Happy Talk,” DAMN YANKEES’ “Heart” and BYE BYE BIRDIE’s “Put on a Happy Face” – wasn’t merely sung by Annie but by the entire ensemble at the end. Good! Everyone can use a dose of sunniness these days. I witness Huron, Ohio’s Caryl Crane Youth Theatre’s OLIVER!

a lyric from “Who Will Buy?” applies to me: “I’m so high, I swear I could fly.” What they’re selling, I’m buying.

Musical theater has long been famous for its clever lyrics; one occurs in “It’s a Fine Life.” Perhaps Lionel Bart’s rhyming “touches me” with “such as me” will get kids to appreciate witty wordplay and go looking for other examples on other cast albums.

Soon after Fagin sang that he was “Reviewing the Situation,” three adjudicators reviewed the presentation. (Every show is evaluated.) Much praise is heaped on them, and it’s all justifiable. In talking to adjudicators over the years, I find that they’re always stunned at the students’ professionalism. As Carl Wallnau, producing director of the Centenary Young Performers Workshop in Hackettstown, NJ often says, “If you don’t tell kids that something’s impossible, they just go out and do it.”

When I wrote LET’S PUT ON A MUSICAL – a guide to community and school theaters on which show to choose – one reviewer said I shouldn’t have included INTO THE WOODS, for kids could never manage its difficult score.

Thousands of productions in grammar, middle and high schools have since proved him dead wrong. Here too did Lexington, Kentucky’s ACTivate.

While the other presentations played in front of a camera that simply showed kids on a stage, ACTivate took advantage of current technology. Each student was seen in a box that floated around the screen. (Were these kids even in the same room when performing?)

Close-ups revealed fabulous faces. How the Baker winced after Little Red Ridinghood’s uncaring observation about her grandmother: “For all that I know, she’s already dead.” Just as fetching were Milky White’s emotional responses as her fate was being decided and The Prince’s grimace that showed he might vomit when blood flowed from the victimized stepsisters’ feet.

And yet, ACTivate abandoned the actor-in-a-box format for the finale. The cast literally did go into the woods and ran around trees while joyously performing “Ever After.”

It was a logical ending. Although Junior Editions condense the entire show, INTO THE WOODS instead simply offers the sunnier Act One and omits the darker Act Two. Thus the cast didn’t have to listen to any of the cast album’s post-intermission songs. However, you know they did and are the better for it.

Alas, Junior Theater Festival West earmarked for Sacramento in May has been postponed a year, but there are high hopes that the Junior Theater Festival Texas will be live on stage in Sugar Land in the Lone Star State come June. Let’s indeed hope that the sun will come out by then so that the kids can meet and greet others and compare notes on their favorite cast albums and musicals. The list will undoubtedly include ANNIE, INTO THE WOODS, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and OLIVER!

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.