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Feature: Hey kids, let's put on a show

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Nov. 17, 2004 at 6:06 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- A new PBS documentary, "Children Will Listen," follows the creation of a musical-comedy production by a group of Washington-area students -- and makes a pitch for public officials to restore funding for the arts in public schools.

Scheduled to air Thanksgiving night, "Children Will Listen" shows children with little or no background in musical theater being brought together to design sets and costumes for -- and to act, sing and dance in -- a production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical "Into the Woods." Not only are the kids to do it more or less on their own -- they're going to play the show at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The project came about through a collaboration that included American University, the Kennedy Center, the American Film Institute, Hallmark Entertainment, Music Theatre International and its Broadway Junior division. Music Theatre International was founded in 1952 to license theatrical properties, specializing in musicals.

The student production of "Into the Woods" was staged as part of the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Celebration.

The documentary, narrated by Bernadette Peters and featuring an appearance by Sondheim, was produced by a team that included entertainment-industry veterans David V. Picker and Freddie Gershon -- but was shot mainly by a group of students from the American University School of Communication, under the direction of Charlene Gilbert, an assistant professor in the school's visual-media division.

Picker told United Press International the project did not have much money to work with, which necessitated the use of student filmmakers to shoot the documentary. However, he said a Washington-area production facility, Henniger Media Services, agreed to do post-production work -- editing, sound, etc. -- for minimal cost.

"Hallmark basically said, 'Do what you want to do,'" he said. "I was very careful with what I spent. When I tell them how we made it, their mouths dropped open."

Picker, who has produced such Hollywood films as "Lenny," "The Jerk" and the 1998 TV version of "Rear Window" starring Christopher Reeve, would not say how much it cost to produce "Children Will Listen."

The experience almost sounds like the sort of thing that U.S. schools are going through, as funding for arts programs gets scarce due to overall budget constraints.

Gershon, who founded Broadway Junior in 1998 to provide schools with music, scripts and other materials for special editions of Broadway musicals, said he hopes "Children Will Listen" will help persuade public policymakers to reverse that trend.

"I have already called it to the attention, for example, of (Chancellor of The New York City School System) Joel Klein," said Gershon, "who has arranged to have his deputies from arts programs meet with me in two weeks to see what can be done to introduce this program in New York City schools."

Sondheim authorized the student production of "Into the Woods" -- dispensing with the usual fees associated with staging a Broadway show -- and the Kennedy Center donated the use of its facility for the production.

"Instead of it being an elitist Mecca for the well-dressed and people who show up in limousines for grand and elegant events," said Gershon, "it became a place where anybody can go and see kids perform. And that's appropriate because it is the national theater of America."

Gershon said he would like to use the Kennedy Center experience as a template for other performing-arts centers around the country to adopt and mentor local schools in similar musical-theater productions.

Both Gershon and Picker are quick to point out that the Broadway Junior program is not intended primarily as a training ground for future theater stars -- but rather as an opportunity for students to gain some exposure to the arts while at the same time learning to solve problems creatively.

"It's not about teaching little boys and girls to be the next Bernadette Peters or Tom Cruise," said Gershon. "It's very entrepreneurial."

Gershon said the experience not only promotes creative thinking and originality -- it also develops in the participants a proprietary interest in the project.

"And they are starting a business, in a way," he said. "They're starting a venture, as well as an adventure."

Picker said he planned to produce more programs like "Children Will Listen" in an effort to keep pushing the idea of increasing funding for arts programs in schools.

"And the more people see, the more we can have influence," he said, "show it to educators and show it to Congress and say, 'Look, support this.'"

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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