A Broadway Star And #SunshineSongs Bring High School Musical Theater To Small Screens

Mar 16, 2020
Originally published on March 17, 2020 11:37 am

High schools are closed and their musicals are canceled around the country because of coronavirus concerns.

Theater kids now have no audience to showcase the numbers they've worked on, some for months and even years.

They won't have a live audience for the time being, but Broadway star Laura Benanti, who won a Tony award in 2008 for her performance in Gypsy, wanted to give student performers the next best thing — an online audience.

She put the call out on Friday.

"I just decided I would go on social media and encourage these young performers to send me videos of them performing from their sequestered homes," Benanti tells NPR. "And so many of them were able to send their final dress rehearsals or rehearsal that they were able to do before their show got canceled."

Parents and young actors are sending videos of rehearsals and at-home performances to Benanti on Twitter and using the hashtag #SunshineSongs.

Benanti has been retweeting some of them to her 146,000 Twitter followers. Other celebrities got in on the action, too: Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda promised to watch. And actress Jennifer Garner made an Instagram request "to the Elsas and Matildas; to the Willy Lomans and Romeos" to show off and tag #heyjenlookatme as well.

The response has been overwhelming. So many people are tagging Benanti with their videos that she isn't able to retweet all of them. The response has grown from high schoolers to theater kids of all ages.

"It's just been really wonderful to see all of these posts pouring in and to know that it's bringing so much joy to so many," Benanti says. "And that although these kids are incredibly disappointed that they're not able to perform for a live audience, they're now getting a huge audience via social media."

Benanti knows how important high school theater is to the young actors. She says her own experience was a "lifesaver."

And she tells NPR that she promises she's watching the videos. "I think the overall feeling that I get from it is how committed these kids are, how open-hearted they are, how sincere they are. ... And I love seeing how much these kids care."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For high school theater kids, there's nothing like knowing you're so close to opening weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BLIND BROOK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS: (As characters, singing) One day more...

SHAPIRO: That's the cast of Blind Brook High School in Rye Brook, N.Y., rehearsing "Les Mis" before they were shut down.

(APPLAUSE)

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So where do high school students turn in this time of cancellations when they've been rehearsing for a musical? Well, where they turn for everything else - hundreds of performers have added their recorded rehearsals and even performances from home right to Twitter, including Sasha Phillips (ph) of Oceanside, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SASHA PHILLIPS: (Singing) Reprimand their daughters - bright young women sick of swimming, ready to stand and ready to know what the people know...

SHAPIRO: The Tony Award winner Laura Benanti encouraged disappointed high school thespians to let loose online.

LAURA BENANTI: I just decided I would go on social media and encourage these young performers to send me videos of them performing from their sequestered homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMERON LEIBFRIED: (Singing) The judges will decide, the likes of me abide. Spectators of the show always staying low...

SHAPIRO: That's Cameron Leibfried (ph) of Orland Park, Ill., belting out her part from her high school musical from home.

BENANTI: Although these kids are incredibly disappointed that they're not able to perform for a live audience, they're now getting a huge audience via social media. Social media doesn't always contribute to society in a wonderful way, and I think this is an example of how it actually can.

KELLY: Meanwhile, in Utah, college freshman Ben Dunford (ph) says he had just started rehearsals for a production of "Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." He gave it his all on Twitter under that hashtag that Benanti initiated #SunshineSongs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN DUNFORD: (Singing) Not only is he tactless but he's also rather dim, for there's 11 of us and there's only one of him.

KELLY: Laura Benanti couldn't be more thrilled with the energy and enthusiasm of #SunshineSongs.

BENANTI: The overall feeling that I get from it is how committed these kids are, how open-hearted they are, how sincere they are. You know, we're a society that values sarcasm (laughter). And like, cool people don't really care. And I love seeing how much these kids care.

SHAPIRO: Like these kids running through the musical "The Wedding Singer" in a parking lot of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. The kids are all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BUFFALO GROVE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS: (Singing) If I told you - if I told you, what I'm feeling now inside, you'd be certain there's not a single thing that we should hide... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.