Rosie’s Theater Kids, a musical theater organization spearheaded by Rosie O’Donnell, will soon be headed to Queens with their PS Broadway program. As a pilot project, the organization took a mini-residency at Astoria’s P.S. 17 where they taught Broadway songs and dance to a group of captivated fifth graders. The students learned a fifteen-week program in just three days.
Inspired by the effects from musical theater as a child, the organization was created in 2003 by O’Donnell along with Artistic and Executive Director Lori Klinger. They began by working with P.S. 51 in the Theater District. After 12 years of the program and ten schools serviced in Manhattan, the company is ready to expand to deserving schools in other boroughs.
Astoria was chosen due to it’s close proximity to Manhattan. A small staff of the program’s teachers will travel to the schools to teach the program to fifth graders. Each year, after the program has ended, they will choose one student to receive a Rosie’s Theater Kids scholarship. The scholarship will allow the student to visit the organization’s Maravel Arts Center in Manhattan during the summer, after school and on Saturdays until they graduate high school.
Artistic Director of PS Broadway, Thecla Harris reached out to four schools in Astoria about the program and to ask whether they were interested in participating in a three-day mini-residency as an introduction. Rebecca Hayward, principal of P.S. 17 Henry David Thoreau, immediately reached out about the school’s intrigue in the program.
“I cried when she told me about the residency because I am a former theater major and to give our children the opportunity was overwhelming,” Heyward said. “The honor of being their first school outside of Manhattan is just a big honor and the kids took it seriously because they are being coached by people who are experts in their craft.”
Heyward recalled the children’s first practice as being a bit challenging. The children were sweating bullets because it’s high expectation with such a quick turnaround date. By the second day, Harris said that the fifth graders learned the rhythm of the class which enabled them to get more comfortable, have a smoother class and have a quicker flow through the steps. She believes it is a testament to the curriculum of the program that the organization has set up over the past 12 years. She taught them on an immediate need basis. They learned stage directions, dance steps, Italian words to describe music and how to use their vocal chords with Lisa Dancer, director of Vocal Studies at Rosie’s Theater Kids.
“If I had approached the class and told them we were going to do a little dancing, acting and signing, they would probably walk out,” Harris said. “So I don’t explain anything but rather walk through exercises and I’m doing it along right with them so there’s a bit of empathy and trust.”
In front of a packed auditorium, the children from two fifth grade classes performed Broadway hits “Sun in the Morning” and “New York, New York” along the piano led by Steven Jamail, musical director and supervisor. Both songs were written by New York City public school alumni. Their teachers, Nicole Mihailides, Rich Brancaccio and Liz Alderson, were moved by the children’s accolades.
“Mr. Brancaccio grabbed me at the end of class and told me that I had no idea how engaging this class has been,” Harris said. “He said if I knew these kids outside of this auditorium, you’d be amazed to see how different they are and for them to come in for an hour at a time and not fight or complain but stay focus is actually unheard of.”
There was one student, Sunjay Gautam, who came up to Harris during the rehearsals and asked if he could give her a hug. A teacher later told her that he was a new student who was finding it a bit difficult to fit in. During the mini-residency, however, his spirits quickly rose. Throughout the entire program, he sat in the front row, was engaged with the P.S. Broadway teachers and enjoyed every minute of the experience.
Gautnam was awarded the Rosie’s Theater Kids scholarship. From fifth grade until the end of high school, he has access to the Maravel Arts Center, which is home to music and dance studios, a kid’s cafe, academic tutoring and theater classes.
For now, Rosie’s Theater Kids and P.S. 17 are hoping to turn this Queens mini-residency into a full annual 15-week program by next year.
“Once we get into a school, there’s a clear change in culture,” Klinger said. “Everyone’s very tentative at first but once we are established, each year we see the new fifth graders excited and screaming ‘it’s our time to do Rosie’s!’”