Building a District 75 Musical Theatre Program

I have both the privilege and challenge of directing the end-of-year show at our school. My first year, we did a Broadway revue. Because of its success, my AP suggested that we do a full show the following year. So we did Aladdin. I typed out the lyrics to each song, and to make their meaning come across more clearly, I supplied images from Aladdin that went along with each lyric. We had an audition process in which I asked them to circle three characters they wanted to audition for, and then they would pick a song to sing. I assigned them their roles and handed out the scripts. I also used the whole process as an opportunity to teach them about audience etiquette.

At most schools, musical theater rehearsals happen after classes are wrapped up for the day, but we don’t have that luxury. So one of the challenges was to get the main characters rehearsing with each other since they weren’t all in the same class. I made up a schedule, and the admin and homeroom teachers were both amenable and flexible. I choreographed the dances by researching videos online for inspiration. I decided to assign about two classes to each dance. And then we made time to rehearse both classes together.

This was also my process for last year’s show, The Lion King. In general, I made things much more detailed for The Lion King, much more spelled out, mostly so that I could get more assistance. For instance, I assigned the paraprofessionals different jobs and kept them in the same assignments because doing behind-the- scenes work is like putting on another show. There’s a lot to rehearse both on and off stage. As an example, each stagehand has to rehearse when to bring the scenery on and off stage, and they have to time this just right while the show continues in front of the curtain. Some scenery changes have to happen very quickly in order to create a seamless transition into the next scene. I also added more notes into each script so that those paras knew exactly what to do and when. And I made sure we had a lot more rehearsal time in the auditorium. I found it was very important for them to rehearse in the location in which they would be performing, so that they could get used to their surroundings and become very familiar with that space.

One of the most time consuming parts of the show for me is creating the “show map.” The show map is very important because there are so many moving parts happening all at once, and this map tells each teacher, para, student, stagehand, etc. exactly what to do and when. I make a spreadsheet that details each character’s entrance/exit, microphone pass, props, lighting cues, curtain cues, etc. And then I add those cues into the scripts and color code them (entrances in green, exits in red, microphone passes in orange, etc.).

Last year, we had the honor of being the only District 75 school to get to perform at The Queensborough Arts Festival at Queens College. I took four of my students who performed “Hakuna Matata.” It was a long day, and at one point I had to request a separate, quiet room for us to use because the noise was getting to be too much for them. During the dress rehearsal, I looked out into the auditorium and thought, “Oh, no. This place is huge. I hope this doesn’t throw them off.” (Colden Auditorium has over 2,000 seats.) But when it came time to perform, they were amazing! If anything, I believe the larger audience fueled their energy, resulting in an even better performance. The other teachers and paras were standing with me backstage, peeking through the curtain and beaming with pride.

I think it’s important for the students to see the connection from what they’re doing in school to what is happening in the world. The Theater Development Fund has a lottery for autism friendly performances of Broadway shows, and we have had the fortune of being able to attend three performances already. We have also been to dress rehearsals and performances of three different shows with New York City Opera. Our school has nine different sites (we’re the only high school site), and each year we attend the performance of at least one of our other site’s end-of-year show.

There are wonderful resources out there for adapting popular musicals for children. However, they don’t really address the needs of our particular population. That can pose a challenge to teachers serving these kinds of students, and it’s a disservice to the children as well. I would like to see sanctioned adaptations that include images and more visuals as well as choreography and script modifications that match the disabilities and learning needs of all of our students. These are the problems I would like to see addressed on a larger scale. However, the rewards that come from this process outweigh all of hard work involved. In my time organizing musicals at the school, I’ve seen undeniable benefits for my students, as the interdisciplinary nature of musical theater provides them with numerous developmental opportunities rolled into one practice. Language and social skills, learning how to collaborate and form communities, exploring the use of technology, building self-confidence - all of these are the direct result of merging music, dance, acting, set- designing, costumery, and more into one common goal. Participating in a musical is incredibly rewarding, and I know from experience that we are creating memories to last a lifetime.

Ms. Jessica Kimple, a native of Iowa, is the music teacher at The Riverview School in Long Island City. She earned her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Northern Iowa, her Master of Music degree from Manhattan School of Music, and her teaching certification from Brooklyn College. In addition to teaching music, Jessica is a freelance musician and a member of The Brick Presbyterian Chancel Choir in Manhattan.