(originally published in Avenue magazine, July 2005)
By Ceri-Louise Frid
Velvet curtains of Thalian Hall open to reveal a sea of mermaids on stage, the music starts and the sweet voices of little girls with flowers in their hair fill the theatre. With iridescent tails and sparkling smiles, Ariel’s angels sing “Part of Your World” to their teary-eyed and very proud parents. Rushing off the stage to make room for the next number, Wilmington’s premier performing arts students bring a little fun to one of the city’s oldest buildings.
As a backdrop to shows such as Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, Wilmington may be a permanent fixture on the tourist map, but what many people do not know is that there’s another group of budding performers in town – the On Broadway performers. This past Memorial Day weekend Thalian Hall played host to the “Broadway Babies,” the “Showstoppers” and the “Rising Stars” for the second year in a row.
Haven’t heard of these folks? That’s because they’re all under the age of nine and haven’t hit the big screen quite yet. On Broadway is a local performing arts company owned and instructed by one time Broadway performer, Amy Wright. Having just ended her second year in business, Amy is preparing to begin a third with more space, more classes and more fun.
“I would say that I have always had a passion for the performing arts,” Amy says. After marrying fellow Broadway star and movie actor Ben Wright, Amy decided to raise a family and settle here in Wilmington. Once she felt ready to begin working again, she opened On Broadway, which was an immediate hit.
Formerly working out of a home studio, Amy taught musical theatre classes with students ranging from toddlers to teenagers. Now the company is growing, she has moved into a studio in Barclay Commons where she will begin teaching in the fall. Her classes have previously focused on acting and singing but this year she’s introducing three dance classes, including the “Rockettes.”
“I think kids like the music, the safe environment to try out new things, and to be on stage and feel how it feels to be in the spotlight,” Amy says of her nearly 100 students. Performing herself since she was a tot, she teaches kids skits and songs from Broadway musicals and popular Disney films. The girls flutter about to classics such as “I Could Have Danced All Night” and the boys rock out and go wild to songs like “Footloose.” Amy says the children love to engage their imaginations through storytelling, singing and creative movement.
“There are some children who are just born to perform,” she says, and for the others who do it for fun, Amy believes it’s a great confidence builder. Perhaps among the born performers in her classes are her two daughters Lillie and Emma Grace. At ages 6 and 4 Amy’s girls love being on stage.
“I like everything about it because it’s exciting,” says Emma Grace, Amy’s youngest daughter. She also has a son, Beau, but at 11 months, he’s still a bit too young for the “Bitty Boppers,” Amy’s baby class of 2-3 year olds.
A pair of little men who did get loose and kick off their Sunday shoes this spring was Edwin and John Hewlett West.
“They were very excited and proud to be a part of the performance,” says mom Lucy West. Her sons have been enrolled in Amy’s classes since March and according to Lucy, they love it.
“They watch and learn from each other without having to compete,” Lucy says, which is one of the reasons On Broadway is so popular. Unlike other children’s activities, the kids can have fun and express themselves without concerns such as scoring a goal or hitting a home run.
In addition to the fun of classes and end-of-year performances, the On Broadway students also get to make a CD of songs they’ve learned during the year. About a month before the performance, Amy arranges a recording afternoon at Audio Genesis on Carolina Beach Road. The kids take turns to enter the studio and belt out numbers where they feel like big-time performers.
“They love the experience of getting to go to a recording studio and having a souvenir of what they’ve learned,” Amy says.
The glamour of the spotlight is a prize most kids treasure, but Amy makes sure to teach respect for the theatre in her classes, too.
“I like to be in the wings and see what the other kids are doing,” Emma Grace says, curling a lock of her strawberry-blonde hair around her finger with a dimpled grin on her face.
The daughter of parents who performed in plays Into the Woods and State Fair, it is not a surprise that Emma Grace has a love for both the arts and the audience. Her sister Lillie, who at six already looks like a ballet queen, also doesn’t hesitate to shine like the lights on the stage.
Though the children love to wow their parents on stage, they’re not the only ones who perform in the year-end show. Amy sings a song to her students and Ben plays Master of Ceremonies for the event, but perhaps the most excited performers at the show are the moms.
“I think the moms just love to be a part of it,” Amy says of the group who shook their booties to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in psychedelic 70s costumes this year.
On Broadway, it seems, is a family affair. According to Amy, everyone participates and there is never any stage fright. Kids go home and sing Broadway songs to their parents and love it when they find their parents already know the tunes. With excerpts from musicals like South Pacific and The Sound of Music, what’s not to love?
“It’s a place for children to learn and discover,” Amy says. As her daughters dance around the kitchen singing “I’ve been working on the railroad…” while their baby brother claps his little hands, it is easy to see that for her students, there is always plenty to discover and never too much to learn.