“Ok scholars, take out your music! We’re going to start with I Just Can’t Wait to be King! This number needs to be cleaned up drastically!”
So began our rehearsal last week for this year’s fourth-grade musical, The Lion King, which is premiering tomorrow. It’s the second year of a new tradition at SA Fort Greene, the annual fourth-grade musical. I want my scholars to love and appreciate theater — to seek it out on their own for the rest of their lives. In my opinion, there is no better way to cultivate that love than to give children the experience of putting on their own musical. From the time auditions begin in January, my scholars take everything they’ve learned from five years of classes, and spend five months working as an ensemble to put on one great musical theater extravaganza.
I want my scholars to love and appreciate theater — to seek it out on their own for the rest of their lives.
This year, I have a cast of 32 scholars from my fourth-grade theater elective and it has been thrilling to watch how they have grown throughout the process. One of my fourth graders, Tristan, is silly and loves to make his friends laugh — I knew he could be great in the comic role of Pumba. But, when we started rehearsing in February, he held back. He was self-conscious and couldn’t bring himself to ham it up when all eyes were on him. Over time, from watching his best friend (who is playing Pumba’s sidekick Timon) acting without restraint, he started channeling his inner goofball. Now, he throws himself into the character and the two of them are hilarious together — they just may steal the show.
Then there’s Manuel, who’s playing Mufasa, the king of the lions. Mufasa is a complex and serious character; he is both a loving father and an intimidating king. But in early rehearsals, Manuel couldn’t keep a straight face when he said the lines — he cracked up every time. He didn’t want to put himself out there and insisted he was only participating because Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal had done a bit of acting, relating to them as a basketball player himself. Finally, I said to Manuel, “This is a serious role — you have to give off the aura of a king! Imagine you are Mr. Ojeda (one of our assistant principals) — channel his authority!” That provided the necessary spark. Suddenly, Manuel’s attitude shifted, he began taking his responsibility as an actor seriously. Now he truly brings Mufasa to life.
One of the most exciting things to observe is how my scholars’ commitment and enthusiasm is spilling over into their academic experience. Teachers have noticed that the scholars who are participating in the musical are performing better in class, because they want to be sure they can use their elective time for rehearsal. Scholars are learning what they’re capable of in rehearsals, and they are bringing that same effort and attitude into their academics.
Theater in elementary school is about building a love for and a relationship with the arts, but its benefits go beyond that. My scholars are working together toward a shared goal, making themselves vulnerable in front of their peers, and listening to feedback. They are seeing that it’s OK to try and fail and try again, and they are learning that when they trust and support each other, they can build something great. They have become more confident, more centered, and more connected with each other and with themselves.
Meanwhile, my little ones — kindergartners and first graders — are awed by the fourth-grade production and are already telling me what musical they want to do (hint: it rhymes with “galaddin”) when they reach that far-off age. I can’t wait to see what they bring to the stage when it’s their turn to become musical theater stars!
In the meantime, please join us for this year’s musical on June 6 and 8 at 8:15am in the SA Fort Greene Auditorium — you don’t want to miss it!