Teaching Children to be Broadway Professionals in a Snowflake Environment

I direct a youth musical theatre/media music program.  I’m teaching talented young people to become professionals, even Broadway professionals.  They live in a fragile cultural environment.  Competition is downplayed.  Anti-bullying is important, but sometimes leads to victimhood and what’s called a “snowflake” response.  When it heats up, the snowflake has a literal meltdown. In this world, the reality is that no one is equal.  Some show up with more talent than others.  Only one actor can be cast in the role, and so criticism is part of the process. It’s my job as one who loves to work with youth in this arena, and a veteran mother of five of my own children, to teach them how to be strong.  I’m teaching life skills that lead to confidence, and a willingness to be criticized so they can improve. I’m teaching them that it’s a good idea to treat the student next to them with respect because one day that student just may be the next casting director for the show or film you’re auditioning for. I’m teaching them to go on with a good attitude if they don’t get cast in their dream role.  And I’m teaching them above all that the only thing they can depend on is their own preparation and showing up to let the auditors know they’d be a wonderful person to know and work with. Being professional is talked about in amateur, community theatre but seldom required or practiced.  Even in youth programs.  I remind my students that children their age are actually performing in Broadway shows, and they are working in a professional environment.  The sooner they learn it and experience it, the better.  No matter what field they enter. Not all professionals are professional, however.  A professional performer who doesn’t learn the boundaries probably is either bloating their resume or they won’t have much of a career long term, because reputation will precede them.  Unless of course you are a superstar and people have learned to put up with your quirks. Barbra Streisand comes to mind, who was known to be difficult.  Betty Buckley is another, but she suffered some setbacks in her Broadway career as a result.  She is the ultimate in achieving the Broadway dream.  According to the late Peter Howard, my music director for the Broadway summer workshops I produced at Circle in the Square Theatre School, Betty showed up her first day in New York, and sang the roof off.  She was immediately cast in the role of Martha Jefferson in 1776, singing He Plays the Violin. Later, after she received the Tony for Grizabella in Cats, and her tole as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., she lost the role of  The Witch in Into the Woods to Bernadette Peters because of a false sense of self-assuredness and not showing up at a rehearsal.  I was in her sister-in-law’s home when Hal Prince called to ask if anyone knew where she was. I had a humorous experience while taking classes in NYC.  Barry Moss, a casting director, came to one of the classes and told me what others before him had, “Has anyone told you that you look and sound like Betty Buckley?” Actually,  yes.  In Fort Worth, Texas, when I first heard this comment after I auditioned at Casa Mana (where Betty got her start), I didn’t even know who she was.  So I decided to study everything she did.  Sunset Blvd. was playing and I was able to sing for Vinny Liff, the casting director.  He spent 45 minutes with me.  He asked me to sing a Betty Buckley style.  When done, he said, “Well, I didn’t mean BE Betty Buckley…!”  Ok. so it was an impersonation. My pianist in NYC called me a few weeks later and said, “Cherilyn, I wanted to let you know I was in a master class with Barry and what I heard him say about you…He held your photo up and said, ‘Do you know who this is?” (of course no one did, I was new in NYC).  He said, “This person looks and sounds like Betty Buckley.  No, she IS Betty Buckley.  No, she’s better than Betty Buckley.  She’s Betty Buckley with a good personality!” My point:  Your reputation will always precede you.  And your professional attitude will typically be behind your reputation. Not long ago I sang in a concert. One of the male soloists let it be known throughout the rehearsal process that he was a “professional” with a long resume which he touted. He does have a very fine voice. However, all throughout the rehearsals he cracked jokes, talked non-stop among the men’s section with whom he was singing, and in general had drawn attention to himself incessantly. At the final rehearsal before the concert, it was of no surprise that when it came to knowing his solo parts, he was not ready. He was still on book. And when it came time to hit his “money” note, he totally failed.  He didn’t even sing it! This is not the result of talent. He has plenty. It’s the result of a lack of professionalism, which includes an arrogant attitude and a lack of consideration for his colleagues to interrupt and take up rehearsal time for his antics.  He lacked the required focus during precious rehearsal time and was not preparing well outside of rehearsals. One of my favorite Broadway friends has been very successful.  She is outgoing, and always focused on what she’s doing. But during the off times, she is gracious, friendly and shows a great deal of humility and interest in the others around her.  That is all part of being a “professional.” These are sometimes rare qualities. But these are qualities that transcend the performing arts.  These are the life skills needed to succeed in every profession. I am training my students to be prepared for life, not just for musical theatre.  I require a lot asking them to learn the skills of professionalism used at the Broadway level, but I also know they can do it.  Most young people rise to the occasion with flying colors and it makes all the difference. Parents want their children to succeed.  One of the best things they can do is support the instructors who know how to develop the skills and habits their children will need in the real world, rather than protecting them from some of the hard lessons that may need to be learned. It’s a partnership between parents and teachers, and good communication will solve most of the concerns.  As a teacher, I welcome parents who may not fully understand my decisions, and I welcome their calls.  It helps me understand what’s happening at home and how the students are responding.  If I have all the information, I will know how to move forward in a positive way. I want to create a rock foundation under each young student in a world that seems to prefer the snowflake that melts when it lands on the rock.  This life is full of ups and downs, and as the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Although it would be wonderful if all things were equal and everyone were treated fairly, life is not fair.  Someone is going to be cast in the dream role you wanted.  You will have little control over that process, and usually it’s not about you.  It’s about things that are beyond your control. Learning how to go forward when it has treated any of us unfairly is imperative if we are to grow and become more … professional. This is why The Youth Ambassadors, my musical theatre/music media performing group, is opening its show with this song written by a friend Ross Boothe, “It’s Just Life.” So thank you to all the parents that I work with!  You are among the most supportive parents I know.  It’s my privilege to work with your children.