Musical Theatre Returns to the Middle School
Curtain Up, Light the Lights!
Story by Ellen Brown and Karen Richardson
When we were interviewing for our chorus and drama positions at Durham Academy’s Middle School a few years ago [Karen Richardson in 2015 and Ellen Brown in 2016], one of the questions we were each asked was, “How do you feel about putting on a musical?” Both of us loved the idea!
One of us had spent over a decade as the musical director and producer of annual productions of children’s operas and of middle school musical theatre at another school in the area. And the other had extensive experience as a performer and directing young people in theatre and musical theatre in NYC for over a decade. After settling into our relatively new positions at DA and spending time thinking and planning about how to make musical theatre a reality, we are thrilled to be partners in bringing musical theatre back to the Middle School as an elective for students.
But why musical theatre? We see immense value in this art form and so do our students. It combines song, the spoken word, acting and dance in a live performance that brings a story and characters to life. It can provide audiences with entertaining frivolity, escapism and joy. It can also give us insight into historic events and the human condition, as well as provide a mirror of our culture and the social issues we face.
Musical theatre is already part of the Middle School’s history. In the 1990s, with a radically different schedule, Middle School students mounted fully staged musical productions under the direction of former music teacher Debbie McCarthy. A few years before we joined DA, current movement teacher Mary Norkus and retired chorus and drama teachers, Melody Zentner and Elaine Malone, had attempted to revive the musical. However, sustaining it was a challenge due to scheduling restraints. While musical theatre lay dormant for a few years, we continued to think about how to bring back this opportunity in a way that would serve students and be workable for us as faculty. We also wondered if there would be enough interest in such a program.
“I wanted to join musical theatre because my sister does the high school musical and I always thought it would be so fun. When they offered this course, I knew I had to do it.”
Jaden Read ’25
Last year, we piloted an after-school enrichment called Broadway Musical Theatre and ended up having to offer two sections of the class due to its high enrollment. It was clear that many of our Middle School students had a strong interest in this unique and popular performing art. We began conversations with the leadership at DA about how to feasibly launch a musical and were met with positivity and encouragement to identify and execute the first steps.
We wanted students to be able to rehearse with some regularity during the day so they would have adequate practice time. That structure would also allow students to participate in other artistic and athletic interests after school without having to choose between them. Although we were inspired to jump into a fully produced musical, we knew that it wouldn’t be easy to add such a demanding experience into an already jam-packed schedule at the Middle School.
We decided the best option was to offer musical theatre as a course for the 2019–2020 school year, which would allow students to pursue their interest in the subject and develop their skills as performers. In the spring of 2019, we auditioned interested sixth- and seventh-grade students for the course and selected 12 individuals for our first cohort this year. The main learning objectives of the course are for students to develop their vocal techniques, refine their ability to act through song and increase their comfort when performing in front of an audience. The musical theatre course culminates in a spring showcase performance that will feature a selection of solo, small ensemble and full ensemble musical theatre pieces. In addition to learning a variety of repertoire, students are currently researching and presenting on important musicals — from 1924’s Lady Be Good to 2015’s Hamilton — to learn about the development of this art form.
Our ultimate goal is to offer a fully staged musical involving interested students from all grade levels at the Middle School. We are hopeful that this goal can be achieved in the near future, especially given the promise of the wonderful new performance space that is being built on the Middle School campus. In the meantime, catch our showcase performance on March 26 at 7:30 p.m. in Taylor Hall!