Why did 2,600 people celebrate high school musicals?

Why did more than 2,600 people jam into the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis last week? They came to praise and promote high school musicals, during one of the most remarkable youth programs I’ve ever witnessed. It was rowdy, rousing and reassuring.

Sarah Cartright, a prize-winning performer who recently graduated from Eastview High School told me, “High school musical theatre is the only activity I know of that makes a family out of athletes, debaters, brainiacs and dance team girls. It is an indescribable joy to see so many different people collaborating to achieve a common goal, all while singing and dancing! Above all, musical theatre simply creates so much joy.”

950 students (not a typo) from 47 high schools around the state participated in last week’s Spotlight program. This was the sixth year that the Hennepin Theatre Trust (HTT) gathered high school musical students from all over the state.

The performance was sold out. It was incredibly uplifting, often funny, hugely entertaining and deeply reassuring. These youngsters work very hard on a complicated, complex project – a high school musical. An array of celebrities from radio, TV and newspaper presented awards and praised the young people.

Eagan drama teacher Nancy Owzarek pointed out that Spotlight “gives students a chance to watch, and learn from performers in other schools.” She told me, “It’s the end of the year and I’m tired. But after tonight, I’m re-energized for next year!”

Eastview teacher Scott Durocher has been a musical coach for more than 22 years. For him, the greatest satisfaction is “the good tears backstage, when students know they have made a real connection with the audience.”

There have to be more than the current 47 Minnesota schools that could gain by working together on musicals. The Trust is looking for other interested schools. Some of their assistance is free. It is impossible to describe all that HTT does to help high school musicals.

They assist not only metro area public and private schools, but also schools throughout greater Minnesota (like Alexandria, Bemidji, Melrose, and Moorhead). They do workshops for students and drama coaches, both in person and via video-conferencing. They send trained observers to watch rehearsals and provide feedback. They help schools share tickets, and props. Incredible! More information can be found at hennepintheatretrust.org.

Melissa Koch, the Trust’s Director of Education and Community Engagement believes, “high school musical theatre education touches such a diverse population of students and is incredibly under appreciated. Not only does it utilize skills in mathematics, physics and design such as in technical aspects of the show, but performing builds a sense of self-confidence, poise and improvisation. Musical theatre education builds community. And for the US future work force, nothing teaches such a wide range of skills that is crucial to creating the innovative leaders we know we need.”

Confession time: I had a small role in a high school musical, “Guys and Dolls.” I wasn’t very good. But the experience was wonderful. Forty-five years ago, there was nothing like the Hennepin Theatre Trust. Today, there is.

Here’s a simple suggestion to any family with a youngster who might be interested, or any educator who does theater or musical theatre with students: Please check out the Hennepin Trust website.

Sarah Cartright, who received a top award, summarized not only what she, but many others have learned from being in a musical: “Never stop reaching for your goals. The world of theatre is chock full of rejections, setbacks and disappointments, but there are just as many high points, callbacks and amazing experiences to be had.”

Reader response:

Just by chance, your uplifting column arrived as I was walking across the Yale campus to address the Yale School of Music’s annual colloquium, which brings together 50 outstanding music teachers from across the US. Events like the one you write about and this one matter. I am going to urge these teachers not to plead for support but to help lead a national conversation about what we want for kids, our own and others. Do that honestly, and the arts emerge as basic. “Don’t plead. Lead” is my bumper sticker. — John Merrow