By Beth Deitchman
It’s opening night at the Ahmanson Theatre, the storied Los Angeles venue that has hosted such Disney musicals as Mary Poppins and Aida. As the performers take the stage for their big, theatrical debuts, you’ve never seen a more enthusiastic audience—or a more adorable cast. The Disney Musicals in Schools Student Share Celebration is the culmination of months of hard work on the part of elementary school students, teachers, and teaching artists—in this case, professional educators from Center Theater Group (CTG)—who have just completed the Disney Musicals in Schools program’s inaugural year in Los Angeles, California.
Disney Musicals in Schools (DMIS) was introduced by Disney Theatrical Group in 2010 with sustainability in mind: The free program is designed to help create theater programs in under-resourced public elementary schools where there previously were none. Through the program, participating schools receive performance rights to a half-hour Disney musical for kids, show kit materials, and, most importantly, a pair of teaching artists—professional musical theater artists and educators—who work with the school over the course of a semester to mount a first musical. This hands-on support is what sets DMIS apart, explains Lisa Mitchell, education director, Disney Theatrical Group. She says, “Over the course of the six-month process, the [school’s] teachers learn how to become music directors, directors, choreographers, producers, stage managers, and designers, so that when we’re not there in the future, they’ve got the training necessary to sustain this kind of work in the school for year after year after year.”
Since 2010, some 30,000 students from nearly 300 schools have performed in their first school musical through the program. With the 2018 launches of the Los Angeles program in partnership with Center Theatre Group and a Chicago-based program with the Goodman Theatre, DMIS is now in 18 cities, including its first international program in London with Eastside Charitable Trust.
Disney Theatrical Group works with partner organizations that excel at both theater-making and arts education, and as DMIS has expanded around the country, Mitchell shares that she’s been thrilled to see each city and theatre company make the program their own. In Las Vegas, many of the teaching artists come from Cirque du Soleil, so their productions feature choreography with some added acrobatic flair; while students in Nashville receive a world-class music education in their public school system, which shines through in their DMIS performances. “One of the things that surprises me most is how you can have two dozen versions of The Lion King take place on school stages around the country, and every single one of them—despite having the same script and the same score and the same plot—is completely unique to that school and that community,” Mitchell says.
Though the cities and schools may put their own spin on the musical productions, they come together for a magical moment that opens every Student Share Celebration, as all of the participating students perform the song, “It Starts with a Dream,” written for DMIS by Disney Legend Alan Menken. “There are so many people in this industry who acknowledge that arts education is what set them on their career path,” says Mitchell. “We were very grateful to him for writing us a beautiful song and giving back in that way.”
Over the course of the program the students learn stage skills, but while they’re preparing to perform titles such as The Jungle Book or Aladdin, they also develop such universal skills as creativity, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, empathy, and more. Menken’s musical tribute to DMIS begins with the inspiring lyrics, “Start with a dream and imagine where you take it,” and for these young performers it’s clear that a truly boundless future lies ahead.