Segerstrom Center brings Disney to Costa Mesa, CA, schools. Fromtop: Kendra Moore of The Lion King visits Stanley Elementary; students of Eisenhower Elementary perform Disney’s Aladdin.

A whole new world opens up for a young elementary school kid performing the title role of Aladdin. It’s the first time he’s sung in front of his family, much less an audience. It’s the first time his school has put on a musical. The memory still brings tears to the eyes of musician and teaching artist Cynthia McGarity, who works with Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

Therein lies the power of a remarkable program created by Disney Theatrical Group, which partners nationwide with arts organizations in nine cities to bring the joy of being onstage to youngsters in Title I schools who might never have thought of performing in a musical in their lives.

“We had cast a boy as Aladdin who had this wonderfully rich voice—just like chocolate—but he was very, very shy. At first he wouldn’t even hold his head up to say a line audibly,” McGarity says.

“Watching him, with his shoulders back and his head held high belting that tune out was...” she pauses as her voice cracks. “His parents approached me after the show, and his father was weeping. He said to me, ‘I never knew that he could do that. I will make sure he has the opportunity to keep singing.’”

“I think we probably were not nearly aware of how much we would fall in love with this program,” says Talena Mara, Segerstrom Center’s VP of education. “We weren’t sure what we were getting into, and it was a big nut to crack for a small staff, but we found, after going through the first year, that this program has made an intense and remarkable change, not just in the kids and the faculty, but in the internal culture of each of the schools.”

Launched in 2009, Disney Musicals in Schools was developed by the Disney Theatrical Group—which produces and licenses Disney musicals—and Music Theatre International, which, among other services, works with schools and community groups on pocket (JR. and KIDS) versions of Broadway shows appropriate for younger audiences.

“It was born to fill a need we identified,” explains Lisa Mitchell, senior manager of education and outreach at Disney Theatrical Group. Over the years, as Disney licensed the abridged versions of its musicals for school-aged children to perform, she says, it became apparent that most requests came from suburban schools, and very few from urban and lower-income areas.

“Here we are in New York City, we have kids performing in Aladdin from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island, and yet they weren’t doing these shows in their own schools,” she says. “But rather than just going in and staging a show for them, we wanted to plant the seed of an ongoing, sustainable program. Disney Musicals in Schools is deliberately designed to provide professional development and training to teachers so they can learn how to get a show up on its feet.”

In just seven years, Disney has fostered the program nationwide via local arts organizations in New York, Nashville, Las Vegas, Seattle, Costa Mesa, Newark, Cleveland, Lansing and the San Francisco Bay Area, and brought it to 138 schools with nearly 13,000 kids at the third- through fifth-grade levels participating.

Like Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, each local institution receives a two-year $100,000 grant to identify four or five underserved, urban elementary schools and match them with four or five pairs of musical theater professionals who will work with each school’s faculty over 17 weeks, training them in the art of putting on a show. The teaching-artist visits, CDs of the musical tracks, scripts, DVDs of examples and the license to perform a special half-hour elementary school KIDS version of popular shows, such as Aladdin, The Aristocats or The Lion King, are all part of the grant, and offered free to the schools.

Disney Musicals in Schools also provides a detailed teacher’s handbook that includes chapters on how to run an audition, how to rehearse the kids, ideas for costumes and staging notes. Organizations like Segerstrom select the schools from among applicants and tap into their connections to find the professional mentors, many of whom have Broadway national credits, in addition to a passion for education. The teachers and students provide the enthusiasm and energy.

“Learning the routines, getting kids engaged, how to cast, how the staging should look—our teaching artists taught us so much,” says Victoria McKenney, a first-grade teacher at Everett A. Rea Elementary in Orange County. “We had a 40-kid cast, and I was overwhelmed at first. It was my first year teaching and I thought, ‘How on earth am I going to do this?’ But we met twice a week and for another half-hour after each rehearsal with the teaching artists, and they were really inspirational. The kids loved it—nobody dropped out—and it’s really brought these kids extra opportunities to shine outside the classroom.”

This year, McKenney and her fellow faculty at Rea will take what they’ve learned and mount another Disney KIDS musical, The Lion King, but on their own. “I’m feeling more confident than ever, even though I had no experience before this,” she says. “We believe we can do it.”

In the second year, Disney Musicals in Schools continues to support schools with a free performance license with ShowKit materials and invites faculty back for a Musical Theater 201 workshop designed to build on skills they gained the previous year, explains Mitchell. “The end goal is that they keep doing this, and 90 percent of schools that begin the program continue a long tradition of doing a show,” she says.

“It is incredibly well-designed,” says Mara. “It’s really helped unify the staff and admin, and the kids and the teachers of these schools, and allowed them to feel proud and energized and engaged. The parents became very connected with the program as well, so it changed the community where the school was located. We did not anticipate that that would happen to the degree it did, so we were blown away by its impact.” DT

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photos by (from top) Doug Gifford, Nick Koon; both courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

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