Making Broadway meaningful for young people

May 12, 2011 4:27:00 AM PDT
Each year, more than 150 high school students from our area get to go to half a dozen Broadway plays and musicals for free, thanks to a program in city schools called Open Doors.

The program doesn't cost taxpayers a cent, because the total cost is picked up by the not-for-profit Theater Development Fund, best known for its TKTS booth in Times Square.

Eyewitness News tagged along as students from the Bronx came to Broadway as part of the program, which introduces young people to the best of the Great White Way.

Without an audience, it's been said there is no theater, and that the future of Broadway depends on making theater meaningful for a younger generation - which is the idea behind Open Doors.

"We recognize that culturally, we exist in many communities," said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatricals - home of "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins." "And to understand and build a bridge to the other one, that's what the theater can do for these kids."

Schumacher is one of 25 mentors, Broadway pros who have introduced high school students to the magic of live theater.

"They meet with someone who's not a teacher, who's not grading them, someone who's not judging them, but someone who is helping to encourage them," Schumacher said.

On a recent afternoon, he took a group from the Bronx to see "War Horse."

"I really thought it was amazing," student Chyaee-Jahbre Ward said. "It was one of, pretty much the best play I've ever seen."

"I never cry, but I almost cried," student Sade Greene said. "It brought out the inner child in me. I loved it."

The Open Doors project was the brainchild of the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

"Wendy had this idea that the theater shouldn't be this rarified thing for just affluent people, that it was sort of your right as a New Yorker to go to the theater," Schumacher said.

Students are chosen to participate-based on essays they submit, and a discussion over pizza and soda follows each performance.

From Schumacher, the students get inspiration. But from them, he gets even more.

"I see the world differently every time I sit down with them and have a discussion," he said. "And the experience of going to the theater with these kids, watching it through them, getting to know them, it's deep for me."

Schumacher said the specific comments of students in the past actually helped him improve his own shows, such as "The Little Mermaid." He also feels he has benefited from the generosity of his mentors, and it only makes sense for him to try and do the same for others.

Click here for more on the Open Doors program.