Let the Show Go On:
Freddie Gershon Brings Musical Theater to Students
How do you save “a generation lost to video games and the Internet?” If you’re Freddie Gershon—entertainment attorney, teacher, lecturer, and Broadway aficionado—you develop a “Broadway Junior” program that exposes students to kid-friendly, shortened versions of full-length shows, and you persuade the New York City public schools to incorporate them into the curriculum.
Gershon, who attended Columbia Law School in 1964 and whose bio reads like a who’s who of the entertainment business (he was lawyer to such musical greats as Neil Sedaka, Marvin Hamlisch, and Eric Clapton), is only too happy to talk enthusiastically about his development of “Broadway Junior” in his current role as CEO of Music Theatre International (MTI), one of the largest and oldest licensing companies of theatre musicals in the world. “In the old days, the radio played Broadway songs. That doesn’t exist anymore. No hit singles come out of Broadway these days,” explains Gershon philosophically.
Gershon used his prodigious talent (he studied piano, composition, and theory at Juilliard for eight years) and ample connections to flesh out a concept: working with the authors of great musical productions, Gershon created a series of 70 minute shows that are specifically tailored to young student performers who are no longer familiar with the Great White Way. “Everything had to be transposed for children’s voices in ranges they could sing,” notes Gershon, illustrating the enormity of the task of bringing adult theater to kids. Gershon completed his first show, “Annie Junior”, in 1998. The first school to buy into his dream was located in Gowanda, New York, near the Canadian border, population 2800. “It was initially scary for the teachers, but we got wonderful feedback from them,” recalls Gershon. On the backs of “Annie Junior’s” success, came a host of others, including “Guys and Dolls,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Into the Woods.” “Putting on a musical translates to life-enhancing experiences for children and the school community,” sums up Gershon. “By the final curtain, each of these teachers will have had the practical experience of staging a musical in their schools.”
But Gershon wasn’t content to stop there. Ever the promoter, Gershon convinced the New York City Department of Education to partner with MTI in bringing “Broadway Junior” to inner city children. Currently eight middle and intermediate schools from New York City have been selected to participate during 2005-2006, with expansion planned annually to include all ages and additional schools. Gershon is particularly enthusiastic about the “showkit” of materials that’s been developed to guide both cast and crew through the intricacies of rehearsals and production, including fully orchestrated CD’s to accompany the cast so that students can practice their singing parts individually and even at home. What’s more, there are curriculum guides that teach students relevant historical information about the shows they are studying. “In ‘Annie,’ the students learn about the 1920’s and the stock market crash, the New Deal, who millionaires are…In ‘Music Man,’ they learn about the Wells Fargo wagon and then compare it to the Pony Express and the Federal Express,” he expounds with an excitement that is nothing short of electrifying. The curriculum guides were developed by moonlighting NYU Tisch School students. Talk about a public-private partnership!
It’s no wonder that Gershon is giving back his love of the theater. His mother played Rose in “Gypsy” and “she took me to see everything on Broadway when I was a kid,” he remembers fondly. He’s also arranged for 68 countries to view Broadway shows through his extensive licensing arrangements (“we’re half of the global market”). “We just translated ‘West Side Story’ into Mandarin,” he adds proudly. Undoubtedly there will be an Act Three for Freddie Gershon, but where his vision and talent will take him next is anyone’s guess.#