For Jada, Max, Sophie and Yabi, the end of year one approaches.
Last fall, the four sixth-graders joined Northwest School of the Arts’ musical theater program, timid yet bright-eyed, thrilled to attend the arts magnet school but terrified of goofing up or missing out.
Several months later, traces of shyness and fear have mostly vanished. Andy Lawler, Northwest’s art director, notices: “They almost have a bit of a swagger.”
On a recent morning, the four talked about auditions for the middle school’s spring musical revue later that day (featuring songs from “Grease” and “The Wizard of Oz”), but none seemed fazed.
“They just give you some music, right?” Sophie Teague, 11, asks the group, which is gathered around a conference table.
“I’m just going to audition and see what happens,” says Jada Jones, who turns 12 next week. Max Orroth, 12, hasn’t decided whether he’ll audition.
Yabi Gedewon, 12, wants to go for the Lion’s part from “The Wizard of Oz.” He’s plenty busy already – he was cast as “Young Shrek” for the high school’s spring musical and goes to practices before and after school.
But musical theater isn’t their entire life. Jada loves the math club and Sophie will go to the state chorus competition in Greensboro next month. Max has doodles in his backpack from the art club.
At the table, their energy level is high: They’ll speak in funny voices to make each other laugh. Max jokes about coiffing his hair ’50s-style for the revue. At the mention of “We Go Together” and “You’re the One That I Want,” they break into song, grinning and bopping in their seats. Enthusiasm for musical theater hasn’t waned either. “The harmonies are like, so cool, they literally give me tingles,” Sophie says of the songs they’ll sing from “The Wizard of Oz.”
A week or two later, the four give mixed reviews of the auditions. None of them got a part (but they’re all still in the revue’s ensemble), but they say just two sixth-graders were chosen to have smaller parts.
Jada said it was “rough” because she felt rushed and didn’t warm up enough. Sophie deemed it “not the worst audition I’ve ever had.” Max thought his went OK for not having prepared: “No voice cracks this time.”
Yabi said he learned what skills need improvement. “I was surprised at myself because I wasn’t scared for the first time,” he said. He recalled auditioning for “Aladdin” for the middle school’s fall musical. “Oh my gosh, I was shaking in my boots.”
Figuring out the rest
They said they’re almost excited about auditioning for next year’s fall musical, which they’re certain to prep for more. The four said they all plan to return to Northwest next year, but they’re still figuring out if they want to focus on musical theater at the school for the next six years.
Musical theater careers are a common dream amongst them, but at just 11 and 12, they’re still discovering their interests and strengths. They’re approaching a time of discernment for kids at Northwest, which comes at the transition between sixth and seventh grade. It’s a period Corey Mitchell, who teaches high school musical theater there, says is one of the most common times students decide Northwest isn’t for them.
Max said he had a discussion with his parents about returning because he might get a C in one of his classes. The four take their academics seriously and said it’s sometimes frustrating in class when other students don’t. Admission to the school is based on artistic performance, but students are held to the same academic standards as any other Charlotte-Mecklenburg school.
While this year’s classes reaffirmed their love for musical theater, the four said some of their classmates won’t return. “Some kids left the first week,” Jada said, citing unexpected pressures of school and performances, while others might have learned they didn’t enjoy the arts focus.
Jada said she wants to remain at Northwest for all seven years, but the others are undecided because they know the high school musical theater program becomes more intense.
The musical theater program does intensify in high school, Mitchell said, using a scale of 10 for reference. “If middle school musical theater is at, say, a 5 or 6 for them, the high school level is about an 8 or 9.”
The first two years in high school are slower-paced, he said, and by junior year, musical theater students are held to high expectations. Their schedules get a lot more hectic, too. In the two months before the spring musical, before- and after-school rehearsals require more than 23 hours from students a week (seven on Saturdays).
Is the program for every theater-loving kid? It depends, Mitchell said. Hard work and passion for musical theater typically decide who stays, or at least, who thrives.
The high school program, Mitchell said, is “at a breakneck speed” with expectations for quickly picking up choreography, songs, music theory and reading music.
Though uncertain, the four sixth-graders do look up to the high school students. “I hope we can all turn out like that,” Yabi said.
They also know big things can happen for Northwest students. Jada pointed out that Eva Noblezada, a Northwest senior this year, left school early to take the lead role in West End’s production of “Miss Saigon” in London.
Mitchell said success stories have happened, but generally, about 20 percent of Northwest graduates continue studying or begin a theater career.
Jada, Max, Sophie and Yabi have some big decisions ahead, and it’s not just their own. It’s a decision that involves their families, too.
“This is a serious thing,” Jada said. “You’re supposed to have fun along the way... but at the same time, you have to be serious about it.”