When Andrea McArdle originated the title role in "Annie," she became the one of the youngest Tony Award nominees ever. This singular achievement -- in addition to having a performing daughter, Alexis Kalehoff (they've even performed together, in "Les Misérables") -- made McArdle the perfect choice to host "Broadway Babies: Kids Working on Broadway."
This recent panel discussion, featuring mother and daughter alongside 7-year-old Matthew Gumley (Chip in "Beauty and the Beast"), 10-year-old Sabrina Reitman (Little Inez in "Hairspray"), and 14-year-old Betsy Hogg (Bielke in "Fiddler on the Roof"), was presented by the League of American Theatres and Producers as part of the ninth annual Kids' Night on Broadway, a national audience-development program designed to introduce young people to the magic of live theatre. It took place on Feb. 1 at Macy's department store in New York.
The event transformed Macy's juniors department into a pre-theatre party. Kids were treated to stage makeovers by MAC cosmetics, mini dance classes offering show combinations from Broadway Dance Studio, and opportunities for amateur vocalists to perform Broadway-style karaoke. The panel was held in "Autograph Alley," where kids lined up to ask questions and request autographs from the panelists. Also attending were young students from Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School. While parents sought advice, it was, surprisingly, the children who asked the most-serious questions, making this panel not merely interesting, but a learning opportunity that Back Stage thought worth sharing.
Miscues in the Moment
The crowd was treated to funny and serious stories about mistakes on stage and behind the scenes. Many in the audience wanted to know if the panelists ever forgot lines, and all agreed that it happens to even the best performers. The youngsters were especially interested in costume malfunctions. McArdle used these stories as an opportunity to explain the difference between working on stage and working on the big or small screen, cautioning, "This is live theatre, so you have to go on with the show." She offered a story about making an important entrance in "Annie" in just a wig cap because her wig was missing and she had only 90 seconds to reappear on stage. Reitman shared how she once tripped during a "Hairspray" dance number because an audience member had let a water bottle roll into the aisle. Hogg added that she's had to learn to deal with tripping when her boots catch on the uneven floorboards of the rustic "Fiddler" set.
All the panelists agreed that mistakes add to the magic of live theatre. Reitman's best example was when "Hairspray" star Bruce Vilanch's skirt broke on stage, leaving him in his underwear. Suddenly, audience and cast were treated to an improvised standup act they'd never forget from the veteran comic and comedy writer. This prompted McArdle to observe, "Theatre is great for actors who like having control, since you can't be on the cutting room floor with live theatre."
How to Schedule
Parents in the audience sought advice about scheduling and battling lateness. McArdle remembered driving her young daughter, who was playing Cosette in "Les Misérables," to the theatre during a terrible traffic jam and suddenly realizing that the understudy was also in her car. (Luckily, all arrived on time.) McArdle, who is also the longest-running Belle in "Beauty and the Beast," admitted she needs to walk a fine line when scheduling her own arrival at the theatre. She feels it creates "a focusing problem" if she arrives early and starts visiting with other cast members: "I'm the queen of last in, last out."
Adorable Matthew Gumley won over the crowd by tackling the serious subject of how easy it is for parents to accidentally double-schedule activities or auditions on a performance day (children serving as "swings" or alternates may not work every performance and thus have variable schedules). All parents and caregivers find developing a system daunting, but the panel agreed you should work together as a family to get everyone where they need to be. They also agreed it's important to have a life outside of theatre and school -- with sports, hobbies, and friends.
Background and Training
When asked at what age children should get vocal training, McArdle stressed, "You can learn from little shows just as much as Broadway," adding that "sometimes it happens backwards and a good voice can be there before a teacher." The crowd was fascinated to learn that performers didn't wear body mikes when McArdle played "Annie."
"Experience can be the best teacher," she continued. "You're blessed to work with great actors and you learn from them. It's important to remember theatrical kids are exposed to many good things. You learn poise and how to work with all kinds of people. It's great socialization."
There are lots of families in the theatre and McArdle's is a good example. Besides her daughter, brother Michael sings and husband Edd Kalehoff is a composer, arranger, and producer. All the panelists had backgrounds doing school or camp plays and danced, sang, or played piano early on. They all felt these experiences helped them learn to memorize, a necessary skill for stage performance.
The young performers all do well in school and are expected to keep up their grades if they want to continue performing. Even the Professional Performing Arts School students confided that it's difficult staying up late or getting up early to finish homework, but all felt it was worth it. McArdle advised, "You have to love the work and love the process," adding that "it's nice to try performing when it's still a hobby -- before you have to support yourself."
Using the Internet
She also felt that a big help for kids wanting to perform today is the Internet, which can be used to market yourself or to learn about auditions and shows. This provided a perfect introduction for the panel's second purpose, announcing the launch of www.generationbroadway.com -- "the first official Broadway website for kids," according to publicity materials -- sponsored by the League of American Theatres and Producers.
This interactive site provides show news, trivia, articles by kids, links, tools for performers, monologues, games, and more, with the goal of reaching out to kids nationwide. Jan Svendsen, the league's director of marketing, said the site should be especially valuable to kids interested in finding out about theatre jobs in areas other than performing.
For information on other activities and on next year's events, visit www.kidsnightonbroadway.com.