How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 2

Spencer Lau

So in my last Blog I discussed how there are some major obstacles that school theater programs are facing on a large-scale. You were probably left with a lot of questions. What can be done to help remedy the situation? How can I help? What can larger organizations do to help? What can directors do to help improve their programs? I’ve compiled some easy fix answers and thought up some crazy out of the box thoughts that may help improve musical theater education in schools.

Part 1 can be read here. 

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Broadway actor advocacy & outreach)

If you watched the 2017 Tony Awards, you may have seen Baayork Lee accepting the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award. In her speech she talked about the programs she has helped found or works with. They include the National Asian Artists Project, Broadway Community Chorus and PS 124 Theatre Club. During a career of critical successes Baayork wanted to give back and encourage more children to act, especially Asian children. She has garnered critical success with the help of a phenomenal team at PS 124, some Broadway friends and the philanthropy of Freddie and Myrna Gershon. Baayork saw a need for a program in her childhood neighborhood of Chinatown and went right after creating a program. Just a few years later, she has built an award-winning program. Unless you have been living under a rock, the names Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have rung in your ears over the past year. The dynamic duo has been called the modern Rogers and Hammerstein and is well on their way to achieving EGOT status. What you may not know about them is their continued work with the Junior Theater Festival and their arts advocacy across the country.

The point is they are advocates for musical theater. Musical theater advocacy is key to making things change. Right now all you see is schools looking to advance STEM instead of STEAM. Let’s be honest, politicians and community leaders are drawn to causes when bright lights are shined on certain causes. Usually you will see advocacy during budget season, when a program is cut, or during awards season. But what will make a bigger difference is year round advocacy. Whenever it’s possible, it will be beneficial for local, regional and national advocacy movements. If it’s possible, and applicable if actors can take a day or half of one and visit local school programs or arrange to meet groups of them; do interviews and talk about their experiences in partnership with programs like Turnaround Arts; volunteer or reduced appearance rates to attend advocacy events would also be beneficial.

Again please don’t take this as a need for charity but as I have found out recently in research for my previous article, more than 75% of the musical theater educators I have spoken to receive little to no funding from their school districts. If you were to take any group of students to attend a show, between a show ticket and transportation, the cost averages between $65-$100 per student. With this in mind, I hope that more Broadway actors, actresses, directors, stage crew and producers will advocate more for the arts and donate SOME of their time to one or two educational programs that advocate strongly for musical theater in schools. This includes Regional, National Tour or Broadway costs and is without the frills of a workshop or talkback. This leads to my next idea.

“Wells Fargo Wagon” (Business, Corporation Philanthropy)

Community sponsorship of school is one of the primary ways most of these programs survive. Many have their students required to sell ads or having to pay a fee. Other programs will have it done on a volunteer basis in order to meet a quota. In any event, many of the mom and pop restaurants, realtors, and other stores will support their programs however they can. They are the economic backbone of our musical theater programs and we cannot thank or applaud them enough for what they do and continue to do.

We all know that presently there has been a tremendous downturn in the economy with ownership costs and cost of living rising. When you contact more national chained places, they tend to give you the brush off, or you have to be a registered type of non-profit (typically 501c classification) or they tell you that they have to reach out to their regional or national corporate office. In general there is this misconception that if a school has a theater program that it’s funded like most varsity sports or activities. This is one of the biggest misconceptions I found in my last article about problems in schools. In general, it is becoming more difficult to find larger program sponsors, grants and scholarships for school specific programs. In researching this topic many teachers, administrators, and parents have said it seems like they are all hiding somewhere. So here’s my proposal to the corporate world. Advertise, invest, advertise and invest in the arts. Advertise your grant programs, scholarships, and who you sponsor on your website, in all that junk or billing mail that is sent, even do it on local, regional or national commercials.

For example Farmer’s Insurance does fundraising all year round and it is in the middle of their home page when the grant process or voting process is open. Many people think that the NEA is a major school sponsor, if you look on their site it is much more community, regional, nonprofit funding. If you don’t believe me just go to their site and find a school program sponsored or funded by it, you will have to look pretty hard. If business boards, CEOs or HR programs tied more of their philanthropy, (or to make it competitive) their bonuses towards schools and school theater program grants I believe that would benefit programs much more. Often times directors, educators, parent booster clubs don’t know where to go or don’t know that there are opportunities to apply for your grant, endowment, or scholarship.

The other knock on corporate sponsorship or grant programs is the red tape process of applying for them. Please keep in mind no one is asking for a free handout or asking that there is no accountability. Far from it, as educators we are accountable for every little thing we do in our classrooms. But the schools with the greatest need don’t have a grant writer or researcher on staff full time. In most cases the person doing the research and paperwork is usually the teacher, director, or at best, the administrator of the building or district. Right now there is a tremendous need for funding for the arts. Most programs run on a shoestring budget or from show to show. Presently in the US the amount of funding for the arts is pathetic and only getting worse if the present administration gets their way. Before the proposed elimination of the NEA and NEH, the US ranked quite low as it only spends roughly forty four cents per person ($158 million) as compared to countries like Germany who spend $20 per person ($1.63 billion) or Australia which spent $311 per person ($75 million) on the arts in multiple forms.

If you look at the role of the NEA in the United States, it has primarily served small and medium organizations in underserved populations. If you do a bit of digging, many of these programs also are in primarily metropolitan areas. What about schools that need that same type of help? I am encouraging that companies that award grants and such please ask for more about the programs applying and find more programs who serve diverse populations in more rural settings. Reward diversity and areas where there is less opportunities for the arts and potential to grow the arts to help students lives and give them another outlet to improve their abilities and chances of gaining the tools to become more successful later in life. It is frustrating to see that some companies and programs pour thousands of dollars into well established, monetarily successful programs and then there are programs that survive from show to show, even though their product is just as good as programs receiving large donations. From a business public relations standpoint it also looks much more philanthropic when you are donating to programs who have a greater need than those with large budgets and large flashy shows to begin with.

Another disclaimer, yes everyone in musical theater needs funding but I am saying perhaps you don’t need to give $5000 to a community program that has a budget or brings in $10,000 in revenue. If you perhaps give $3000 and then maybe spread the other $2000 to two or three underserved school programs it would make a tremendous difference.

Part 3 coming tomorrow! 


Spencer Lau is a fourteen-year public school teacher, producer, music education advocate, clinician, writer and musical theater director. He can also be followed on Twitter (@njdlau)

Photo: Calabasas High School students perform "Cool" from their production of West Side Story at the Pantages Theatre. MARY PLUMMER/KPC