Students at Nassau BOCES Long Island High School for the Arts rehearse "Big Shot," a musical set to Billy Joel's songs. NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano reports. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas, Howard Schnapp

Dancer Olivia Vetack, 17, of Lindenhurst, glides across a wood floor with laser focus. She’s dancing with attitude, moving from a fan kick to a pirouette as the Billy Joel song “Big Shot” plays.

“I like being able to change up my style of how I dance,” Vetack says during a recent Tuesday afternoon rehearsal. “It shows versatility.”

In the next room, 17-year-old singer Robbie Morana, of Massapequa, is taking the lead vocal on Joel’s “Uptown Girl” as four of his peers provide background harmonies.

“I put my own spin on it but still keep that Billy Joel energy inside of it,” he says. “I grew up listening to his music, therefore it was so natural for me to get right into it.”

These students are part of a 24-person cast putting on an original production called “Big Shot” at the Nassau BOCES Long Island High School for the Arts in Syosset (LIHSA), which is a two-year program that offers pre-conservatory level training for 250 juniors and seniors. The show, which debuts on June 9, comprises 19 Billy Joel tunes that tell a story through song and dance.

Students Alexandra LaPlaca, 17, of Hicksville, left, and Olivia Vetack, 17, of Lindenhurst, rehearse the school's production of "Big Shot" on March 26.

“It’s about a rising star and how she navigates the challenges of her life in the limelight,” says L’aura Bagdziunas, who is the co-writer, co-director and co-choreographer with Chris Brick. Vetack portrays the larger portion of the star's life, with two additional actresses portraying her younger years. The story spans her journey from childhood to young actress to star, and, eventually, her downfall.

“We sat and listened to every song that Billy Joel has written," Brick adds. "From there, we used the lyrics and sound of each song to move through time. We wanted to insert some songs people didn’t know as well as his big hits.”

Bagdziunas and Brick began putting the show together last summer. Auditions started in September and by October, rehearsals commenced. However, the cast was limited by only being able to rehearse every other Tuesday for three hours.

“We wanted the students to take this opportunity to understand what it’s like to be in a professional rehearsal setting where things move quickly,” says Brick. “They are working on a new show from the ground up ... you don’t get to do that often.”


Joel became a supporter of the school in 2015 when LIHSA was about to close due to a lack of financial support. In a letter to the BOCES board, he wrote, “My feeling is that Long Island needs to embrace the arts. I went to public school on Long Island and I am grateful for the music program and my music teachers for helping provide me the tools for which I have based my career. I understand that closing the school does not mean the end of the music and arts programs on Long Island, but it does indicate our willingness to abandon a school that has been there for 40 years rather than build it up into something Long Island and New York State can be proud of.”

There’s a huge weight on my shoulders to bring songs like ‘Vienna’ or ‘Just the Way You Are’ to life in the form of a full production. It’s a responsibility to be upheld.

- Lucas Spillman, 18, of Lindenhurst

The Piano Man became a benefactor for LIHSA. In 2017, the school’s auditorium, The Rosalind Joel Conservatory for Music and Theatre, where “Big Shot” is being presented, was named after Joel’s late mother.

“The community stepped in to support the school because of having access to free public arts education and pre-conservatory training,” says LIHSA principal Laura Vega. “Billy Joel became involved in that support to keep the school open.”

Although the students are teenagers, they are all familiar with Joel’s older material.

“My mom always loved Billy Joel and we’d listen to his music in the car,” says dancer Alexa Mincone, 16, of East Meadow. “She’d always sing it to me when I was little.”

Music director Adam Tillford rehearses "Big Shot" with students. The show will be performed for one night only on June 9 at the school in Syosset. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Singer Lucas Spillman, 18, of Lindenhurst, who solos on “Vienna” and “Just the Way You Are,” adds, “I feel like there’s a huge weight on my shoulders to bring songs like ‘Vienna’ or ‘Just the Way You Are’ to life in the form of a full production. It’s a responsibility to be upheld.”


The show opens with “The Entertainer” and leads into “Los Angelenos” setting up the west coast scene. “Everybody Loves You Now” is when the star, a role played by Vetack and two other dancers at various ages, is getting a lot of attention. Each number uses different dance movements to showcase her emotion.

“We have classic jazz with slow, slinky moments in ‘Stiletto’ and ‘Pressure’ is a high intensity jazz movement piece. It depends on the song and the story,” says Bagdziunas. “Whatever lends itself the best to portray what the character is going through.”

“She’s Always a Woman” is a tender moment between the star and her love interest using contemporary balletic movements.

“It’s a very vulnerable and emotional dance showing how these two lovers are in a great place in their relationship and eventually they end it,” says Lorenzo Hilliard, 16, of Wantagh, who dances in the duet with Vetack.


The songs are sung by 10 vocalists (an even male/female split) backed by a five-piece band (piano, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) made up of current and past LIHSA faculty members.

“We are trying to theatricalize the songs a little bit but keep with the spirit of rock 'n' roll Billy created around them,” says musical/band director Adam Tilford. “We are not doing Rodgers and Hammerstein; this is Billy Joel music, so we give the songs that rock power without ever undermining the theatricality.”

Vetack has a lot of heavy lifting to do as her stint as the star stretches from the end of Act I through all of Act II.

“This is very sentimental for me because it’s my last year here and my first ever big role therefore I just want to do it well,” she says. “It’s a lot of pressure but I can’t wait to perform it.”

Vega adds, “There’s excitement around this production because it has just a little higher stakes than what they might do in a school setting. When you see the dancers and hear those harmonies from the vocalists, you get goosebumps.”


WHEN | WHERE 6 p.m., June 9, Nassau BOCES Long Island High School for the Arts, 239 Cold Spring Rd., Syosset

MORE INFO 516-622-5678,

COST $35-$40


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