'Enrapturing Kids': Bringing Children To Theatre at NYMF
As composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz pointed out in a recent interview for BroadwayWorld, involving children in the arts has many positive benefits for society as a whole. In particular, theatre opens many doors for children, involving them mentally and emotionally as members of an audience, and as artists themselves when they perform. To that end, Meridee Stein and Pamela Koslow have worked together to make certain that the youngest audiences get the highest quality of theatre both as an audience and as performers. Together, they will present a reading of Captain Louie, a musical by Schwartz and Anthony Stein that was written to be performed by and for children, as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Meridee Stein has been working to bring children to theatre for twenty-five years. She founded the first all-children's theatre company, and was its artistic director for seventeen years. In 1985, she commissioned and directed The Trip, and is now co-producing and directing Captain Louie. "The passion that I have is to introduce the young and families to the American musical theatre," she says, which she defines as America's national treasure. "It matters greatly that children are exposed to... high-quality professional theatre at a young age, so that they fall in love with it." As patrons and participants in the theatre, their lives can be doubly enriched, she explains. "Studies show that young people who are involved in theatre do better in school, and are more active in the community," Stein says. "Theatre can be a life-giving experience, and I love it. I want to share it."
Pamela Koslow, who produced Jane Eyre and Jelly's Last Jam on Broadway, is also co-producing Captain Louie. "I truly love the theatre," she says simply. "I feel that it's very important to give younger audiences an experience in theatre, and I think it's wonderful that they can see a truly theatrical piece as opposed to (or along with) Rugrats or Dora the Explorer or one of the Disney [movies]" on a big or little screen. Live theatre can involve and effect children in a way that impersonal television and film cannot. "A real theatrical production aimed at a younger audience is a very worthwhile endeavor," Koslow says.
Worthwhile though it may be, producing theatre for children has been a challenge. Disregarded as insignificant and unintelligent, the genre has long struggled to find a respected place in the theatre community. "It was a long climb up the ladder," Stein says, "to get people's attention and get them to understand they have to develop an audience when [the audience is] young, or they're not going to have that audience when time goes by. People are finally understanding," she says with satisfaction. Koslow, as a successful producer, understands not only the artistic need for children's theatre, but the financial advantages. "There definitely is an audience, as Meridee's theatre company proved for 17 years," she says. "People want to take their kids to theatre, and they'd like to see something that's not just appropriate for children... and even though it's aimed at young people, [Captain Louie] is about fitting in, making friends, and that [is something for] all ages." As Schwartz described in his interview, Captain Louie is a modern, urban story with themes to which both children and their parents can relate. "Good family theatre is good not just for children," Stein says. "We want to enrapture kids and capture adults. It has to speak to both generations for it to be a full experience, and that's what we hope to do."
Both women speak most eloquently about the New York Musical Theatre Festival itself, praising Geoffrey Cohen and Kris Stewart for their amazing achievement in bringing the Festival to life. "I think these guys are to be so commended," Koslow says passionately, "and I really feel very privileged that they're including family entertainment pieces. This is what's necessary," she stresses. "People have to give credibility to this kind of work and include it in with other musical productions." Stein agrees. "I believe the festival should be highly praised for including families in their festival," she says, and calls Cohen and Stewart "tremendous" for inviting them to present Captain Louie as part of the Festival. "This gives us a chance to highlight our work," she says. "A festival is one of the only venues that we have for this." A full-scale production would be more costly for both producers and audiences, but a smaller presentation as part of a festival gives audiences a chance to attend workshops, readings, and final products in an affordable venue. "It's a tremendous effort," Stein says of the Festival. "The theatre community has rallied behind it, and I hope it has many years to run."
"I think if the talented people in the theatre community contribute even more than they are, theatre for young people will thrive," Stein says of the future of the genre. "I think there's a great future for family theatre and family entertainment." Koslow agrees, pointing out that many regional theatre companies, such as The Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut, have mandates and programs to create and improve upon children's theatre. With the efforts of master artists and producers who understand the need to grab audiences while they are young, children will have access to high-quality theatre that can inspire them, and keep them coming back for more. "These children who've grown up in [theatre] are going to give back," Meridee Stein says with not mere assurance, but years of experience to support her optimism.
Captain Louie will have two readings at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the 47th Street Theatre, 304 W. 47th St., on Friday, October 1 at 5:00 and on Saturday, September 2 at 2:00.
There will be several other family-friendly shows premiering at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, including:
A staged reading of The Enchanted Cottage, written by the award-winning team of Thomas Edward West (book), Kim Oler (music) and Alison Hubbard (lyrics) will be performed twice at the 45th Street Theatre on Monday, September 27 at 4:30 p.m. and Thursday, September 30, also at 4:30 p.m. www.enchantedcottagemusical.com
Like You Like It, book and lyrics by Sammy Buck, music by Daniel S. Acquisto. September 26th at 8:00 p.m., September 29th at 1:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., October 1st at 1:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. and October 2nd at 8:00 p.m. at THE BECKET on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues.
Tusk, a Musical, with a book by Steven Billing, Norman Rea and Steven Yuhasz; Music by Bryon Sommers; Lyrics by Norman Rea; and additional music by David Salih & Craig Strang will be performed Saturday, September 18 at 8, Sunday, September 19 at 1, Tuesday, September 21 at 8, Sunday, September 26 at 1, Wednesday, September 29 at 1, and Thursday, September 30 at 8. The original story and additional lyrics are by Steven Billing. At the 47th Street Theatre, 304 West 47th Street. www.tuskamusical.com
The Happy Prince (Book/Music/Lyrics - Frank Schiro; Director/Co-developer of Book - Shawn Churchman) will be performed at the newly renovated the Beckett on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St., September 25 through October 2. www.happyprincemusical.com
Striking Viking Story Pirates, Book by TBC, Music by Eli Bolin, Lyrics by The Story Pirates adapted from stories by kids! Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Saturdays, noon and 3pm at The Arthur Seelen Theater at The Drama Book Shop. www.storypirates.com