Editors note: This is the first in a series following four sixth-grade musical theater students at Northwest School of the Arts.
The intro to A Whole New World began, and Yabi Gedewon, who stood nervously in front of the judges with hands folded in front of him, began to sing Aladdins part.
I was intimidated by the other kids, they were really big, said Yabi, a sixth-grader at Northwest School of the Arts. I thought, Why am I even doing this? I was shocked when I got the part. (He scored the part of the villain Jafar for the November musical.)
At Northwest, many musical theater students recall their first auditions for the schools fall musical with mortification. Northwest high school students who began there in middle school and the musical theater teachers agree that sixth grade is a formative time for Northwest students. Its not only when they begin learning about musical theater, they said, but its also a year of self-discovery.
Meet four sixth-grade musical theater students who have just embarked on that journey: Yabi, Jada Jones, Sophie Teague and Max Orroth. Theyre all 11 (Max turns 12 Thursday) and bubbling with excitement about musical theater.
A perfect fit
The four said theyve dreamed of attending Northwest.
I wanted to go here so badly because Ive known about it since kindergarten, Jada said.
My friends couldnt stop talking about it, Yabi added.
Max said his decision to attend was reaffirmed last fall. I went and saw The Color Purple (at Northwest) last year and said, This is amazing. I want to do opportunities like this.
Of the 1,004 students at Northwest, 72 are middle-schoolers in the musical theater program, and 22 are in the sixth grade.
This isnt a school where the quarterback and cheer-leading captain are royalty. Instead, its the kids who get parts in school productions. And, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools arts 6-12 magnet school, its a place where artistic kids feel at home.
I was home-schooled before (sixth grade), said Tessa Belongia, now a sophomore at Northwest. I left elementary school because I didnt fit in. When I got here, I was like, Oh my goodness, Im not the only one like this!
The first auditions
If you talk to a group of Northwest high-schoolers whove been there since middle school and ask them about their first auditions, theyll utter cries of disgust and laughter. Some will clutch their heads in their hands.
Many said they thought they bombed their early middle school auditions.
I was like, Oh my gosh, it was so bad, sophomore Sarah Moore recalls. Sophomore Matt Mitchell said he forgot some words and asked to re-do his audition. Abby Corrigan, also a sophomore, brought a boombox to her first audition and didnt know she was supposed to bring a binder with sheet music instead.
They got roles, and in the sixth grade, those parts carried enormous weight. Senior Eva Noblezada, who won a Blumey Award this spring for her lead role in Northwests Footloose production, still remembers her sixth-grade musical debut, which was one line as Teenage Girl #2 in Cinderella: And the prince is giving a ball.
From vaudeville to Gershwin
But before jumping into Aladdin auditions, this years sixth-graders began their musical theater education.
In the sixth grade, we get a very mixed bag, said teacher Bonnie Fraker, they are very unformed at that point.
She said because she and her colleague, Matthew Hinson, have to focus so much on the musical aspect of theater, the sixth-graders simultaneously take a drama class.
They said the kids have to learn how to sing and be in character at the same time. What they know at this point is standing in rows and singing, Fraker said.
The four sixth-graders said theyve learned a lot in just a few weeks about the history of musical theater and theyll enthusiastically tell you about vaudeville, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin with little prodding.
A whole new world
They auditioned for Disneys Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular, a few weeks ago, with varying degrees of nerves, and all four got parts. Yabi will play Jafar, Sophie is Narrator 3, Jada is in the ensemble and Max will play Razoul, the captain of the guards.
They said trying to look at the posted call-back and cast lists was a chaotic experience. Youre climbing over so many people, Sophie said. It looked like World War Z with all the zombies.
Then theres the thrill of working with big kids seventh and eighth graders and also hearing about how cute they are. I felt like I was in kindergarten all over again, Jada said.
All four set goals for this year.
Jada said she wants to improve her range, singing and acting skills. She said its a lot of work being an ensemble member.
When I sing, all my breath runs out. I have to work on singing and dancing at the same time, and doing flips and all this stuff, she said.
Max said he wants to boost his dance skills I have two left feet and hes already getting better in a school dance class. Its building up my muscles. Now I can do pirouettes barefoot.
Yabi wants to stay on top of his grades. I hope I can succeed academically because I care very much about my education, he said.
Sophie wants to be a more flexible dancer. My goal at the end of the year is to be able to do a split.