Performance is culmination of season’s Johnny Mercer Foundation/ NJPAC Musical Theater Residency Program

More than 100 middle-school students from Newark and surrounding areas starred in the world premiere of their own Michael Jackson musical, ‘Life Beyond the Lights.’
More than 100 middle-school students from Newark and surrounding areas starred in the world premiere of their own Michael Jackson musical, ‘Life Beyond the Lights.’

NEWARK, NJ — More than a hundred New Jersey middle-school students, with little or no knowledge of musical theater, became collaborative composers, lyricists, dancers, singers and scriptwriters as part of a program that lets kids put on a show at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

For the fourth year, The Johnny Mercer Foundation/NJPAC Musical Theater Residency Program made it possible for students and teachers from five schools to learn the nuts-and-bolts of structuring a musical, from the opening number to curtain call. Beginning in February, NJPAC Teaching Artists were brought into the classrooms to lead page-to-stage sessions that included American musical theater history, script and lyric writing, rehearsal and performance.

Students in the participating schools – Union Hill Middle School in Union City, Heywood Avenue School in Orange, Terence C. Reilly School No. 7 in Elizabeth and Harriet Tubman and Abington Avenue schools, both in Newark – chose the life and career of “King of Pop” Michael Jackson as the subject of their original musical, titled Life Beyond the Lights. The final performance, which was given on Wednesday, June 8, in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater, was programmed so each of the five casts presented a different segment of the show, guaranteeing everyone their moment in the spotlight.

The namesake of The Johnny Mercer Foundation – the Hollywood songwriting great who reminded people to “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” – was a champion of the art of song and its value in educating the young through creativity and self-expression. In addition to sharpening the young actors’ memorization and storytelling skills, the process fostered teamwork, confidence and self-discovery.

“I think, without music and art, we would just be bland,” observed Jordan Wallace, an 11-year-old from Abington Avenue School, in a recent interview.

An important benefit is learning to listen to others, according to Jonathan Brielle, executive vice president of The Johnny Mercer Foundation, who spoke to the young troupers just prior to their performance. Coincidentally, two days earlier, Brielle had opened his own musical, “Himself and Nora,” at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre, which he wrote and composed.

“Listening is a skill you will carry for the rest of your life,” he told them. “I look forward to listening to what your hearts and minds have to say.”

The Johnny Mercer/NJPAC residencies also help schools meet their curricular goals; all of NJPAC’s educational programs are developed in accordance with the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards. NJPAC Teaching Artists are trained in a curriculum based on the Erin Layton/Georgia State University curriculum provided by The Johnny Mercer Foundation.

This program is made possible by generous support from The Johnny Mercer Foundation. Additional funding for Arts Education at NJPAC is provided by The Prudential Foundation, the Victoria Foundation, Merck Company Foundation and ADP.