Let them shine: High school students learn audition skills from Broadway professionals

The stage in the Columbus North High School Judson Erne Auditorium has always been a safe haven — a judgement-free zone for hundreds of students to showcase their talents and express themselves through song and dance.

For two hours Wednesday, the stage transformed into something more — a place where Bartholomew County high school students could let their theater spirits fly for three Broadway professionals to observe.

More than a dozen students from Columbus East, Columbus North, Columbus Signature Academy — New Tech and home-school put on their brightest smiles, laced up their dancing shoes and performed 16 bars of songs from various musicals in front of New York casting director and producer Stephen DeAngelis, musical director and accompanist Eugene Gwozdz and Broadway performer Jon Peterson.

All three experts brought their unique insights on auditioning, singing, dancing and acting to Columbus’ first-ever Broadway Master Class, a two-hour course for students to learn how to audition for a Broadway musical from top Broadway talent.

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It was during last year’s inaugural Broadway Memories show, a concert event featuring top vocalists from New York stages hosted by Columbus North, that DeAngelis said left him wanting to see more of the local talent in local high schools.

Several students from Columbus-area high schools assisted backstage at last year’s show, which benefits Our Hospice of South Central Indiana’s just-launched Music and Memory program.

“I said the next time I come back, I want to open up opportunities for local students to be a part of the show as an educational platform,” DeAngelis said.

Encore performers

Each student who auditioned during Wednesday’s master class will perform as part of the encore in the Sept. 28 Broadway Memories show at Columbus North. Several students will be selected to perform in a special number with Tony Award nominee Josh Young, who is one of five Broadway stars featured in the event.

“This is like a regular open-call would be in New York,” DeAngelis said. “I’ve cast over 100,000 performers. Between Eugene (Gwozdz) and I, we’ve worked with almost every Broadway star that exists. I love the whole thrill of using the casting process to discover talent.”

Unlike a traditional audition, each student not only performed in front of the casting director, but also in front of their peers in the audience so they could learn from each other’s experiences.

Molly Hotek, a Columbus North freshman, got her start in theater in kindergarten when she was a part of the pirate chorus in “Peter Pan.” Her first major role came when she was in second grade and played Gretl von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”

“I’m all about taking every opportunity you can to get better at something, especially to reach some sort of goal,” Hotek said. “I have plans for the future of majoring in something like this, and I thought this would be one more thing I could add to the repertoire; one more experience that I have that maybe no one else has.”

Some people are into sports, but for Hotek, she said theater is her sport.

Performing in front of “the big leagues,” Hotek said, was “really scary,” but it benefited her to think about the opportunity as a catalyst for her future.

“Fear is always going to be there but it’s about overcoming that fear and putting yourself out there,” Hotek said.

Jocylon Evans, 16, auditioned for her first theater production just three years ago when her voice teacher, Janie Gordon, told her she had a voice for theater.

“I love singing; I love acting; I love dancing,” Evans said, “but I really enjoy the people and the atmosphere. Everyone is so lovable and kind. It’s like a family. You never feel out of the loop. No one judges.”

She performed 16 bars of musical theater composer Stephen Flaherty’s “Waiting for Life” from the one-act musical, “Once On This Island.” The song is a prayer, DeAngelis said, instructing Evans to pick a point near the ceiling that she could focus on as she sang. By doing so, she was able to better connect the audience to the “God” she was communicating with.

“I felt so good knowing I can improve and always get better,” Evans said. “Taking a class with professionals and really great people who know what they’re doing helps prepare me for where I’d like to be in the future.”

Evans’ next big debut comes in December when she’ll perform in Disney’s “Newsies” with Cardinal Stage at Bloomington’s Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

Columbus North senior Eric Le is typically behind the curtain of Columbus North’s musical productions, working as a crew member to make sure the show runs smoothly. Wednesday was a different story.

“This is my first time ever singing an actual song from a musical,” Le said. “It was frightening because I’m not confident in my voice, but I feel like I chose a song that describes me well.”

Le sang Broadway composer and lyricist William Finn’s “I’m Not That Smart” from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” In his performance, Le expressed himself through movement, but DeAngelis gave him some helpful tips to really put him in the place of a spelling bee, but still express himself.

“Hopefully the more I audition, the less frightening it will get,” said Le, who plans to study musical theater at DePaul University in Chicago. “I want to be more confident in my song choice and my voice and become a better performer.”

Evaluating talent

DeAngelis said he hosts classes like this one all over the country as a way to evaluate up and coming talent. Often times, he said, people invest their money in revivals instead of the development of new musicals because people think they’re less of a risk, but it takes away opportunities for new voices.

“It’s always about building for the future,” DeAngelis said. “There’s got to be the next generation. You always want to make sure you’re restocking the pond because if not, there will be nothing for anyone to do, no shows for anybody to be in, no performances, no one will feel heard or seen.”

While the students also receive one-on-one attention from DeAngelis, Gwozdz and Peterson, the educational experience extends to the concert that each student will be a part of in late September. Once the student performers are selected for the featured performance with Young, the schools’ theater directors will host rehearsals so the students are acquainted with the music.

On Sept. 28, the students will be integrated into the program and will rehearse with the Broadway stars themselves.

“They’ll get the benefit of watching me stage the performances and will see how professionals deal in those situations and adapt and make changes,” DeAngelis said. “That’s part of the educational outreach for them. I want to demystify this process as much as possible.”

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What: Broadway Memories

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 28

Where: Columbus North High School Judson Erne Auditorium, 1400 25th St.

Cost: Tickets are priced at $15 to $50 and are on sale at ourhospice.seatyourself.biz.

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Performers include:

Jackie Burns, who holds the distinction of performing the role of Elphaba in the Broadway production of “Wicked” more than any other actress.

Ali Ewoldt,who most recently concluded more than two years as Christine Daae in Broadway’s “The Phantom of the Opera;” “The King and I” (Tuptim); and “Les Miserables” (Cosette).

Drama Desk Award winner Lisa Howard, who has appeared in “Escape to Margaritaville”; “It Shoulda Been You”; “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”; “9 to 5 The Musical”; “South Pacific.”

Wade Preston, the Piano Man in the Broadway production of “Movin’ Out,” focusing on the music of Billy Joel.

Tony Award nominee Josh Young, who starred as Judas in the Broadway revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and as John Newton in “Amazing Grace.”

Musical director/accompanist will once again be Eugene Gwozdz.

Musical selections will celebrate the best of classic and contemporary Broadway. Shows represented will include “Wicked,”; “The Phantom of the Opera”; “Les Miserables”; “Jesus Christ Superstar”; “The Sound of Music”; “West Side Story”; “The King and I”; “Jekyll and Hyde”; “Movin’ Out”; and others.

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