Andrew Lloyd Webber is doing it. Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing it. Even Taylor Swift is doing it — that is, joining the wave of artists trying to awaken music education and a love of musicals in the schools.
This feels new to me.
Yes, an important organization called Inside Broadway has been bringing New York school kids to Broadway and artists to schools for decades — specifically since 1982, when Bernard Jacobs, the late president of the Shubert Organization, asked an arts consultant named Michael Presser to develop a free program to bring students to see “Cats.”
But the spotlight on young audiences suddenly has higher wattage. First, Lloyd Webber announced plans to give $150,000 to buy musical instruments and fund music classes in 20 New York middle schools chosen by the city’s Department of Education. The program, a continuation of his educational work in Great Britain, here is called Rock the Schools, which isn’t a bit coy about its link to the composer-mogul’s new Broadway show, “School of Rock,” about an offbeat inspirational teacher empowering kids by turning them into a band.
Days later, Miranda, the creator and star of “Hamilton,” held a news conference with the Rockefeller Foundation, which is giving $1.46 million to make it possible for 20,000 New York school kids to pay just $10 to go to Wednesday matinees of the impossibly popular hip-hop/historical musical phenomenon. Again, the Department of Education will pick participating schools, and the program will include classroom study and interactions with the cast. (The last time I checked, the show, sold out through much of the winter, had a ticket resale value as high as $5,000 on Ticketmaster.)
And I just read that Swift is donating the proceeds from her hit single “Welcome to New York” to expand a program called SING, which has students write and perform their own musicals, then face off with other schools in an annual competition.
What’s this? Is it possible that, finally, producers and artists have noticed the significance behind their graying audiences and started thinking creatively about building the next generation of theatergoers?
Presser agrees that something is happening. “Thirty-four years ago, schools thought it was very nice that we wanted to introduce young people to the arts,” he says. “But, really, they felt they had more important things to do with the school time.”
But he sees a complete turnaround in recent years. “There’s a completely opposite point of view in the education world. I think they’re more sensitive today to the idea that learning happens in different areas with many different kinds of experiences.”
At least as interesting is the change in attitude from Broadway producers. Although the Shuberts made 50 free tickets available to schools weekly during the entire 18 ½-year run of “Cats,” Presser remembers “a great deal of resistance from individual producers.” He says he used to have to “beg” producers to be part of Inside Broadway’s three annual free theater trips. “Now they bid for the chance.”
With all the star-driven new initiatives for New York students, it may be too easy to overlook what’s happening on Long Island to expose students to Broadway.
The day after the news broke about the Rockefeller hookup with “Hamilton,” I got an extraordinary email from Susan Barbash, chair of the nonprofit Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund.
“The Rockefeller Foundation is not very interested in suburban Long Island,” she wrote, not mincing words. “But we are.”
Are they ever. The organization raised $85,000 to bring the high school’s entire 11th grade class — 512 students plus 40 chaperones in 11 buses — to the March 30 performance of “Hamilton.” “We passed the hat,” she says with understandable pride about having donations from local businesses, the alumni association, individuals, a go-fund-me site and banks. “Banks!,” she said with a significant pause. “Alexander Hamilton was the patron saint of the banking industry.”
The fund, which underwrites many different arts programs, grew from something that happened to her parents, real estate developers and community arts activists Lillian and Maurice Barbash, when they attended a Broadway production of “Having Our Say” in 1995. So impressed by the two-woman play about black life through the decades, the couple invited 700 Bay Shore High School students to see it.
The amazing “Hamilton” adventure began when Susan saw the musical while it was still Off-Broadway at the Public Theater. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we have to make it possible for our students to see this.’ In fact, every high school student in the country needs to see it. The cast looks like the population of Bay Shore,” she said, stressing the diversity and immigrant populations in the town. “The show’s language is familiar to everyone.”
Barbash made sure that the entire 11th-grade class will get to go. “Bay Shore has a very strong theater program,” she explains, “but this is a show that reaches beyond the theater geeks. We wanted to make the experience available across the board, so you don’t have a self-selected group of kids getting to see it.”
And back at school, the social studies and language arts departments are developing a “Hamilton” curriculum and the dance group is choreographing a number from the album. “This is the year of all Hamilton, all the time,” she added. “They’re going to be ready for this.”
She also connected me with Carol Brown, administrative coordinator for Arts in Education for BOCES, the educational cooperative in Eastern Suffolk. Brown told me about the school districts that have “embraced taking kids into Manhattan” for cultural experiences — what are considered “soft skills” that “raise a humane citizenry . . . They need to know that life doesn’t all happen on this isolated island.”
I asked Presser what will happen when these new Broadway-bred audiences get old enough to buy their own tickets — and find out that they can’t afford them. He said “that’s another discussion,” then he chuckled so he didn’t sound as worried as we all should be.