Since August 1995, more than 30,000 students ages 6 through 18 have availed themselves of the opportunity to work with professional directors, choreographers and musical directors. Starting on a Monday for a full week, eight hours a day, kids learn and rehearse songs and dances. On Friday, they perform for their parents and other well-wishers. In between, they fit in other musical theater activities — including a visit to a great big Broadway show.
“Camp Broadway was significant in showing me that there were more like-minded kids interested in theater than I thought,” says Greg Nobile. “To see a room jam-packed with young people who had passion equal to mine was so exciting.”
As it starts its 20th season, Camp Broadway’s success has even surprised the company’s artistic director, Tony Parise.
“It all started in a small studio as the first Broadway-themed program taught by Broadway professionals,” he says. “This was designed to give kids who love musical theater access into the world of Broadway. Eighteen local children attended the first five-day program that featured classes in singing and dancing, master classes with Broadway stars, a behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway show, and a special ‘finale’ performance for families.”
The media turned out to be interested. NY1 News, CNN, Good Morning America, the New York Daily News, and other outlets covered the activities. Within weeks, more than 2,000 parents from across America had called for more information. As a result, the second annual Camp Broadway almost doubled its ranks to 35 students; now it annually boasts around 100 in each class.
Parise debunks the assumption that Camp Broadway’s aim is to develop stars. “No,” he says. “We’re in the business of producing memorable experiences for kids who love the theater, most of whom grow up to become Broadway’s most informed and loyal members of the audience.”
Melissa Caolo, Camp Broadway’s managing director, likes a certain analogy. “A parent who brings a kid to Little League doesn’t necessarily expect that the boy will turn out to be Derek Jeter,” she says. “The goal is to have him have a good time, learn about teamwork, and become a better baseball fan. Just as the stadiums in this country are filled with spectators whose love of baseball was fostered by Little League, we want to see theatres filled with people who had a chance to come in contact with Broadway, whether their original goal was to become a mechanic or Bernadette Peters.”
Some, of course, do see Camp Broadway as a first step to a musical theater career. Adam Kantor, 28, has been on Broadway as Mark in Rent, Henry in Next to Normal, and Off-Broadway as Jamie in The Last Five Years. Between such gigs, he vocal-coaches.
“I owe a lot of that to Camp Broadway’s musical director,” Kantor says staunchly. “After the week was up, I continued to take vocal coaching, which really opened my world into music I’d never heard before, examining the musical theater catalogue all the way back to operetta. I now use many of the techniques I was taught both as a performer and a vocal coach.”
Kantor was in the class of 2002, along with Frank DiLella, who now reports theater for TV station NY1 and teaches at Fordham. “The camp taught me that Broadway isn’t just a street in New York, it’s a community that extends beyond NYC; it’s a family, and more than anything, I wanted to be a part of that family. Camp Broadway connected us with professional artists with whom we interacted and took master classes. I don’t use this word lightly, but it was Mecca.”
Sunny Naughton became so enamored of Camp Broadway that she is now its program manager. Naughton says that the first day of camp is reserved for warm-up exercises — and for kids to warm up to each other. “Kids work as an ensemble that will support the two pros in the leads in mini-versions of shows done on Friday,” she says. “For example, we did four numbers from Sweet Charity. But by the end of the week, we did them very well.”
“The best thing is that Camp Broadway accepts everyone,” she says. “You don’t have to audition and you certainly don’t have to be on a professional track to be a part of it.”
Naughton reports that “most kids know Broadway songs when they get here. If only they knew as much about the intense level of discipline our professionals demand. Some don’t know how to treat and maintain their voices, but they learn that water and tea are very much needed.” She stops to laugh. “They even learn that when they’re in the subway, they should put their fingers in their ears to save their hearing.”
Those who are positively obsessed with Broadway may also get an extra perk. Says Naughton, “Our last rehearsal space was next to a bunch of Book of Mormon actors who were preparing to enter the show as replacements or go on tour. That’s zero degrees of separation,” she says.
One week is not Camp Broadway’s sole focus. The rest of the year, the staff is busy working with dozens of authors, Broadway productions, and theatrical presenters. Over the years, it has hosted more than 400,000 children at its preshow educational workshops.
The company launched StageNotes®, a National Standards of Education–compliant study guide series that now features approved curriculum for dozens of Broadway shows, from classic musicals such as 42nd Street and Kiss Me Kate to current works including Wicked and Legally Blonde. These and other Common Core lesson plans are now available on StageNotes.net.
Such activities have resulted in Camp Broadway being honored by the Educational Theatre Association for leadership.
Camp Broadway has also served corporate clients by creating and managing customized edu-tainment programs, including the Pride Rock Project for Disney Theatrical Productions as well as programs for the United Nations Foundation Nothing but Nets and Samsung.
In addition to presenting its own year-round programming, Camp Broadway is also the general manager of the National High School Musical Theater Awards — a.k.a The Jimmy Awards, named for chairman James M. Nederlander. Last month, 28 organizations around the country brought a male and female winner of regional competitions to New York. There, they all had their own version of camp for a week before performing at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. One boy, Jonah Rawitz, and one girl, Jai’ Len Josey, received the coveted title of Best Performance by an Actor and Actress, respectively, and $10,000 toward their college tuition from the Nederlander Organization.
Of course, not everyone can get to New York City, so in 1999 Camp Broadway started camping out in other cities. “Now we have 12 cities including New York City,” says Caolo. They include Atlanta; Buffalo, New York; Gainesville, Florida; Greenville, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Miami; Pittsburgh; Providence, Rhode Island; San Antonio; and Tempe, Arizona.
Michael Reed, now the Senior Director of Programming and Organizational Initiatives for Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University in Tempe, says he was interested in having Camp Broadway visit the moment he heard about the program.
“Our mission statement is ‘Connecting Communities,’” he says. “That’s it. No dozens of paragraphs, but one phrase. We have a large Latino population, so we wanted these kids with geographical, cultural, and economic differences to meet other kids in Tempe and come together. Camp Broadway was an excellent way to achieve that.”
Reed saw immediate results. “The best thing is that the boys and girls gain self-confidence from Camp Broadway. At the start of the week, I’ve seen kids come in here, overwhelmed simply by the fact that they’re in a large university. Some of them want to quit even before lunch is served. Then little by little, they become acclimated. By the end of the week, they’ve blossomed.”
Caolo agrees. “At the Friday showcase, I’ve often sat next to a parent who says to me afterward, ‘I don’t know that child that I just saw on stage.’ That’s how much a kid can change in a single week.”
Camp Broadway also teaches kids how to work together to reach mutual goals. Says Reed, “This is all about teamwork and supportiveness. It is not a talent search. It’s an experience for kids who have no experience. All that’s required is enthusiasm.”
Each year, Gammage gives scholarships to 20 out of the approximately 80 kids who participate. “Some of our kids have gone on to careers in musical theater,” says Reed. “While they may not yet be stars, they’re working in a field they love. That wouldn’t have happened without Camp Broadway.”
Greg Nobile says he’d realized midway through his Camp Broadway career that he wouldn’t be a professional performer. “Yeah, seeing all those other campers with far more amazing talent made me know way down deep that I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “So instead I turned to producing.”
Nobile’s first time out has resulted in a smash hit: the recent Tony-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. Not bad for someone who’s all of 21 years old.
“Winning a Tony was a dream come true,” Nobile says. “But my first real dream come true was finding a summer camp where you stayed at a DoubleTree Hotel and saw a Broadway show every night.”