This is a blog post by Scott Evan Davis, a composer/lyricist based in NYC. Besides writing for the theatre and cabaret community, he also spends his time teaching musical theatre to children.
Six months ago, I had the privilege and honor of being hired by Arts Connection, (a company that hires teaching artists to work within schools to create the arts) for a very unique task. The students at Spectrum School, at PS 94M, (a program for children with autism), had spent the past few years working on Broadway Junior Shows created by Musical Theatre International (MTI). The Spectrum School, however, had something different in mind for this year.
The students expressed a desire to write and perform their own musical this year. Their teacher, Tessa Derfner, and principal, Ronnie Shuster, followed through in the most outstanding way. They contacted Arts Connection, and together figured out a way to make this daunting task happen. Freddie Gershon, founder of MTI, provided the funding, and I was hired to help guide the students musically and lyrically, and to create an original musical to be performed by the end of the school year.
From day 1, one thing was clear: The students wanted the world to know what dealing with autism was like on a daily basis. They wanted the musical to take place in a school, on an ordinary day, under extraordinary circumstances. They wanted to explore the idea that one day, after being beaten down by bullies, they each received a superpower which they could use to save the school from bullies. What they really wanted to do was teach the bullies the RIGHT way to behave. Not with revenge but with understanding. This was the heart of the story. We decided to call the musical “Powerful Day”.
This needed to be THEIR musical, and for that, THEY had to come up with the ideas and words that would be made into songs. Watching them come to life while they were singing never ceased to amaze me. There were students who were extremely shy who I watched become completely present while singing a song. There were also jobs behind the scenes that were just as essential to the process. We wrote about seven songs, completed the script, filmed videos, and rehearsed like professionals. Their energy and dedication was unyielding.
By the end of the process, we all knew that we had something special. Freddie Gershon and his wife Myrna, along with some representatives from MTI, came to watch one of the final rehearsals. Much to our surprise and awe, they brought Broadway composer and musical theatre icon Stephen Sondheim along to watch as well! Each of the 5 performances was better than the last. The students were asked for the first time ever to sing at the graduation ceremony that month. The school, teachers and I were awarded the MTI COURAGE IN THEATRE AWARDS for 2012, and afterwards we were all treated to a Broadway show.
I truly believe it was some of the most personal, and connected music that I will ever have the good fortune to write. The message was, “If you want something, and are willing to work for it, ANYTHING is possible, no matter who you are, or what challenges you have”. To be able to give each of them a voice, and to truly listen to them, was something very special for me. The love, support and encouragement from their teachers was just as important to the process as the dreams the students had to create their own piece of theatre. Thank you PS 94M for your courage and dedication. This experience for me was the essence of what theatre should be.
To learn more about Scott, visit www.scottevandavis.com.