When Disney Theatrical Group introduced Disney Musicals in Schools to Nashville in 2011, the idea of one day involving more than a thousand Tennessee students in its musical theater programs seemed like wishing upon a star.
But last school year alone, more than 1,300 students in 30 under-resourced schools in Davidson and Bedford counties participated in the initiative at no cost to the students or schools, taking their favorite Disney stories from the screen and transforming them onto the stage.
And this school year’s theatrical reach across Tennessee will be even bigger. As part of a rural expansion effort, elementary and middle schools in Coffee and Cumberland counties will join the fun through a 17-week musical theater residency.
TPAC has awarded a $25,000 grant to Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, which will select one public elementary school to participate this school year and another in 2020-2021. Also participating this school year will be North Coffee Elementary School in Manchester.
“I believe the arts can positively affect the entire school culture, especially student motivation, attitudes, and attendance,” said Weslie Webster, education director at the Cumberland County Playhouse. “It fosters student expression of feelings and emotions. Expressive kids are happier kids, and happier kids find learning more enjoyable.”
The program is available to schools where at least 40% of the student population is considered economically disadvantaged. All participating schools receive performance rights for the Disney KIDS or Disney Jr. musical of their choice, along with educational support materials and guidance from professional teaching artists trained by TPAC.
Over the course of three years, TPAC works with school communities to establish theater programs with the hope that they will continue on afterward. All the while, students are gaining a wide variety of skills that are necessary to produce musical theater, including critical thinking, problem solving, ensemble building, and interpersonal communication.
“I have seen several students grow in their self-confidence,” said Bryana Guerin, a teacher at Learning Way Elementary School in Shelbyville. “I have seen pure joy on their faces when they finally nail a song or dance move they had been struggling with. This process has also helped students make new friends they might not have hung out with other wise.”
Kids aren’t the only ones getting in on the fun. The initiative features a professional development focus, allowing teachers to partner with professional teaching artists to learn how to produce, direct and choreograph, culminating in their first Disney KIDS musical at their school.
“I’ve heard the phrase ‘walking on air’ my whole life but have never experienced that feeling personally until I watched my students perform,” said Sherry Littley, a teacher at Nashville’s Charlotte Park Elementary.
Her colleague, Alexandra Thurman, is equally enamored of the opportunity that the program is giving her school.
“Our students love this experience. They are constantly talking about it during the school day,” Thurman said. “They want to practice during recess, and I have even seen them trying to teach students not in the show the songs and dances.”
Disney KIDS musicals are 30-minute performances that have been adapted from classic Disney films such as 101 Dalmatians, Aladdin, The Aristocats, Frozen, The Jungle Book, The Lion King, and Winnie the Pooh. As a capstone, the Student Share Celebration is an event when students perform one number from their show for an audience of students, teachers, family, and community members.
Disney Musicals in Schools launched in 2010 in response to concerns that under-resourced public elementary schools were not getting equitable access to the arts. After successfully offering the program in New York City schools, Disney Theatrical Group piloted the program in Nashville the following year and has expanded to other cities too, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago.
“Programs like Disney Musicals in Schools are imperative to a well-rounded education,” Webster said. “It gives students a sense of pride when they get to work on something from the ground up. These programs engage the creative side of the brain and promote creative thinking skills which can be applied to whatever profession they choose in the future.”
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DISNEY THEATRICAL GROUP (DTG) operates under the direction of Thomas Schumacher and is among the world’s most successful commercial theatre producers, bringing live entertainment events to a global audience of more than 20 million people a year in more than 50 countries. Under the Disney Theatrical Group banner, the group produces and licenses Broadway productions around the world, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida, TARZAN®, Mary Poppins, a co-production with Cameron Mackintosh, The Little Mermaid, Peter and the Starcatcher, Newsies, Aladdin, and Frozen. Other successful stage musical ventures have included the Olivier-nominated London hit Shakespeare in Love, stage productions of Disney’s High School Musical, Der Glöckner Von Notre Dame in Berlin, and King David in concert. DTG has collaborated with the nation’s preeminent theatres to develop new stage titles including The Jungle Book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Freaky Friday and Hercules. As a part of the recent acquisition of 21st Century Fox, DTP also heads the Buena Vista Theatrical banner which licenses Fox titles for stage adaptations including Anastasia; Moulin Rouge! The Musical; Mrs. Doubtfire and The Devil Wears Prada.
Disney Theatrical Group also delivers live shows globally through its license to Feld Entertainment, producer of Disney on Ice and Marvel Universe Live!, bringing beloved Disney stories and characters annually to over 12 million guests in nearly 50 countries worldwide. In addition, DTG licenses musical titles for local, school and community theatre productions through Music Theatre International, including The Lion King Experience, a unique holistic arts education program wherein accredited elementary and middle schools produce condensed, age-appropriate JR. and KIDS adaptations of The Lion King.
Music Theatre International (MTI) is one of the world’s leading theatrical licensing agencies, granting theatres from around the world the rights to perform the greatest selection of musicals from Broadway and beyond. Founded in 1952 by composer Frank Loesser, and orchestrator Don Walker, MTI is a driving force in advancing musical theatre as a vibrant and engaging art form.
MTI works directly with the composers, lyricists and book writers of these musicals to provide official scripts, musical materials and dynamic theatrical resources to over 70,000 professional, community and school theatres in the US and in over 60 countries worldwide.
MTI is particularly dedicated to educational theatre, and has created special collections to meet the needs of various types of performers and audiences. MTI’s Broadway Junior™ shows are 30- and 60-minute musicals for performance by elementary and middle school-aged performers, while MTI’s School Editions are musicals annotated for performance by high school students.