As art forms go, musical theater is unique. Born in the U.S., musical theater is as young and as vibrant as our country — and it’s always changing. “Ten years ago, who would have thought a hip-hop rap musical about the Founding Fathers would be the biggest thing to happen to the stage? Musical theater can include anything from dance, storytelling, song — there is room for everyone at the table,” says Rebeccah Singer, education director with Porchlight Music Theatre, Chicago’s leading theatre organization dedicated to this distinctly American art form.
Singer is, of course, talking about Hamilton, the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda that is wildly popular across generations and cultures. Her point is that for kids in Chicagoland, musical theater is a highly accessible and rich source of skills that kids need to thrive in school, social settings and future careers.
Through robust educational programming Porchlight Music Theatre gives young performers opportunities to dig into musical theater in classes taught by working music theater professionals who perform all over the city of Chicago. Kids ages 4 through 17 can participate in age-appropriate programming to dance, sing, write, perform — and build a host of lifelong skills in the process.
Because only a tiny percentage of students in Chicago Public Schools actually get the recommended amount of weekly arts education, students are missing out on building the many skills they need to compete in higher education and career. “Students need arts partners to come in and provide that creative outlet and skills that the arts provide. They aren’t going to get it from school alone,” Singer says.
Even if your child isn’t a performance nut, they can benefit from taking part in Porchlight Music Theatre’s educational programming. Here are just some of the skills they’ll gain when they participate.
Collaboration of musical theater
Teamwork is a top life skill and musical theater is a collaborative art form, says Singer. In Broadway Basics for instance, 7- to 10-year-olds work together over 12 weeks to create and perform a final production that is unique every session — which means kids can participate again and again and never get the same experience twice.
“In our classes, we focus on working with the group that is in the room right now. How can we work together to make something great? We can all improve our ability to collaborate and learn how to honor our ideas and the ideas of the group,” Singer says. A mix of outgoing and initially reserved participants means that each student can build leadership skills when they voice their own ideas and also champion the ideas of the larger group.
In Broadway Basics, as well as Music Theatre Bootcamp (ages 11-13) and Advanced Music Theatre Performance (ages 14-17), participants create a final production through which they learn all aspects of pulling together a stage show. And, for the first time, Porchlight Music Theatre welcomes 4- to 6-year-olds to Mini Musicals for a week of their very first introduction to musical theater this summer.
Every child needs the self-confidence that comes from performing individually and in an ensemble. “Dance promotes body awareness and learning music builds new brain pathways,” Singer adds. “Studying musical theater allows kids to analyze contemporary songs they may be really excited about. They learn how to view things through a characters’ eyes and imagine a different perspective. Through studying music theater, they can really understand different methods of communication and self-expression.”
Learning how to stand in front of a group of people and speak clearly and confidently can never be taken for granted for the self-confidence it builds, Singer says — especially now as we are all emerging into a post-pandemic world. “Our kids, like all of us, are reentering the world and their social lives. We’ve all spent so much time in front of a screen, so to step into a safe space to relearn how to be social and collaborate, you can’t put a price on that skill for kids,” she says. “Musical theater is the best antidote to being locked in the house doing remote learning.”
As kids emerge from pandemic disruption, they need ways to process what they have experienced. Musical theater fits the bill. “It’s difficult for kids to fully articulate how the pandemic has affected them, especially because they never had a say in what happened to them,” she continues. “To be given tools to express this is valuable and it’s a way to sort through what happened with other kids who went through the same thing.”
And, during Porchlight Music Theatre’s youth programming, the experience is in the hands of the kids who participate. “There is curriculum and there are skills the teaching artists are covering, but the exact content — for example song and dance choices — and direction the final show goes is in the hands of the students. That’s really rare. Their voices have a ton of value and they are the primary drivers of what the class content becomes. They are working together with the teaching artist to create something new each time.”
Something for all
Kids don’t need to start young to get a lot of benefit from programming at Porchlight Music Theatre nor do they need to love to tap dance on tabletops or belt out showtunes, Singer added. Even those who don’t see themselves as theater kids have a lot to offer to the experience and the teaching artists are always excited to welcome every kid to join in.
Who knows? Your child could help create the future of this uniquely American, ever-changing art form.
“We don’t expect that every kid will go on to Broadway, or even want to,” Singer concludes. “But we do hope they will learn an appreciation and a respect for others’ ideas and for all of the people they have met in their ensemble. We hope they develop a lifelong appreciation for and love of the arts and that they develop good human skills that will nurture them through a lot of different paths, no matter where life takes them.”