Glimpsing Broadway’s Future: Lincoln Center Theater’s Celebration of Student Songs

Rachel Syme | June 10th, 2011

Broadway performers sing at Lincoln Center’s 5th Annual Celebration of Student Songs.

On Monday night, outside of Lincoln Center, the limos pulled up. One by one, models and fashion designers spilled out in pairs, the former tottering up to a line of paparazzi on skyscraper heels to mug for five minutes before loping down the red carpet. The CFDA Awards, fashion’s version of the Oscars, brought out movie stars and musicians, all kissing cheeks in thousands of dollars of couture.

Across the street, in a smaller underground theater called the Mitzi Newhouse, something far less glamorous took place, and yet in a way the two events were interconnected. As capital “f” Fame was being celebrated inside Alice Tully, a crop of high schoolers hoping to one day write Broadway hits were preparing to unveil songs they had written for Lincoln Center Theater’s 5th Annual Celebration of Student Songs. This was fame in the making, and it was as endearing as anything in this city gets.

The conceit of the event is a heartening one: Students from five different New York schools, mentored by music teachers and Broadway songwriters, compose songs for the stage. Then bona fide Broadway performers step up to the mike, backed by a live band, and perform the music. It is a professional performance, with voices that smooth over flaws from still-developing songwriting techniques, making the compositions soar. Parents and siblings beamed in the seats as they saw the fruits of the students’ labor. It is a room that feels hallowed, everyone buying into the vision that art is important, and even more fantastical, that composing for Broadway can be an achievable and desirable dream.

As the Tonys zoom towards us, it’s encouraging to see young people just starting out in their careers doing so well. There is a road between first writing a song and being nominated for Best Original Musical, and maybe the students fortunate enough to participate in Lincoln Center Theater’s program will be able to negotiate that path more nimbly than others.

The songs were, as expected, about aspects of teenage life: loving a boy who doesn’t love you back, wanting to be a superhero, feeling like a princess on a really important night (Gramercy Arts’ Danika Bonilla’s “This is Wonderful” felt like an anthem about prom night). But the lyrics weren’t all innocent. The students of Flushing High School YABC churned out the two most moving numbers of the night — Melissa Ovalles “Got to Find A Way” was about healing after the death of a parent, and Marquise Campbell’s rap tune “D-RUGS,” about living with a drug-addicted mother and her abusive lover, left several members of the audience looking around for Campbell himself (the parental impulse to comfort runs strong).

The Broadway performers who donated their time to learning the songs were in high spirits. Charlie Brady, Miguel Cervantes, Janet Dacal, Jose Llana, Kenita Miller, and Alysha Umphress traded off singing duties, but it was really Umphress (American Idiot) who stole the show for the professionals. Her sassy treatment of the love ballad “I’ll Do It Anyway” (by students from the Frank Sinatra School) made the song feel like it was a missing number from any number of rock musicals.

It is possible to lament about the future of Broadway and the death of the great musical (and many articles about and surrounding the Tonys will do this), but in that room, filled with the energy and pride of young songwriters, one got the feeling that the future is in capable hands. And that’s more encouraging than celebrities pulling up in limos anyday.