Broadway passion burns bright


Imagine "American Idol" on steroids -- more finalists (60), more talent, more pure passion.

That's "Broadway or Bust," a fascinating, three-week documentary series, Sundays on PBS. The first hour has already aired, but you can watch it on the PBS Web site; here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

For a while there, a classic American
art form seemed to be fading.

Radio stations didn't play Broadway's
songs; TV didn't celebrate its performers “Broadway stars are no
longer quite as prominent as film, television (and) reality-show
stars,” said Mason Alexander, 17.

But now there seems to be a
counter-force, a wave of fresh talent. That's clear in “Broadway or
Bust,” a PBS documentary series following 60 teens in a week of New
York performance and competition.

“Everybody can sing, everybody can
dance, everybody can act,” Brittany Dankwa, 17, said of the others.
“(You think,) 'Man, look at all this talent! Where do I fit in?'”

Where does this surge come from? Some
people credit TV and movies, but that may be too easy. “A lot of us
caught the musical-theater bug before 'Glee' came out,” said
Elizabeth Romero, 18.

“Glee” arrived in 2009, the
“Hairspray” movie in 2007, “High School Musical” in 2006. For
some kids, at least, those had a big impact.

“'Glee' is one of the reasons I ended
up moving to California,” Alexander said.

Like Kurt on “Glee,” he was a
musical buff who felt like an outsider. “I couldn't express my art.
(I wanted to) continue working on my passion (for) musical theater
without fear of bullying.”

Since moving from North Carolina, he's
landed a few cable-TV roles (under his Screen Actors Guild name of
Mason Alexander Park), recorded a jazz album and won a regional
competition to propel him to this intense week. Some of the others
arrived with very different stories.

Sabaa Sharma comes from a family of
doctors and engineers; Dankwa comes from an opposite background.
“I've been homeless,” she said. “I've had times when I didn't
have food to eat.”

That was in 10th and 11th
grade, as she and her mother slept in a car or with friends. But
she's had a goal from the time she did “Once on This Island” at a
high school in East Point, Ga.

“The kids there were so
inspirational,” Dankwa said. “It's like one big family …. I
wanted to feel at home in the theater.”

In the competition, teens' choices
often reflected their lives. Dankwa sang of determination with, “And
I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” Alexander did “I Am What I Am”;
Romero did “Disneyland.”

“I've always been a shy person and
quiet,” Romero said. None of that comes across immediately; she's
tall (5-foot-8), strong-voiced, articulate. But in suburban Los
Angeles, she had her own version of a retreat. “I went to
Disneyland all the time,” she said. “It was my little escape.”

She took dance classes, did children's
theater, then found a magnet school for performers. Such things may
be a key reason for the talent surge: Baby-boomers keep giving their
kids new arts programs.

Joshua Grosso, a Colombian native, did
close to a dozen plays and musicals at a prep school in Florida. He
finished second at the regionals in Tampa Bay, but advanced when the
winner couldn't go.

In New York, he said, “Our director
(said), 'No matter what happens, you are all winners.'

“And I'm in the back going, 'Well,
technically, funny story ...'”

He was feeling like an underdog, Grosso
said. “These 59 other amazing people open their mouths and (I'm)
like David going up against Goliath.”

Or maybe not. Grosso, who learned
Italian from his father's grandmother, sang a “Light in the Piazza”
song in that language during rehearsals. Students and teachers
applauded; it was, he grants, a week to remember. “How many kids …
get to say we have debuted on Broadway?”

– “Broadway or Bust,” 8 p.m.
Sundays on most PBS stations (check local listings), Sept. 9-23.

– If you missed the opener,the full
episode is at www.pbs.org/broadwayorbust;
the others will be there after they air.