BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but the teens featured in the new PBS series “Broadway or Bust” wouldn’t know much about that. They were too busy learning dance steps and memorizing lyrics.
“We went to see ‘Nice Work if You Can Get It’ the first night we were there, but then it was all work, work, work,” says Carly Moffie with a laugh.
Thanks to her performance in the title role in the Beverly High School production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Moffie, 17, was one of the 60 students chosen to compete in the National High School Musical Theater Awards, a.k.a. the “Jimmy” Awards, this past June.
“Broadway or Bust,” premiering Sunday on Channel 2 at 8 p.m., followed the students, including David Nicholson from Acton Boxborough Regional High School, as they spent a week in New York pulling together a show at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway and vying for best actor and best actress honors.
The three-part series should appeal to fans of shows like “The Glee Project” and “Smash,” said co-executive producer Lance K. Shultz, in an interview here during the recent Television Critics Association press tour, which themselves helped make a show like “Broadway or Bust” possible.
“Regardless of whether you like watching them or you don’t, [shows like that] really have brought a lot of attention to performance and the arts,” said Shultz, who co-produced with Boston’s PBS affiliate WGBH.
It will not have a reality show patina, however, says Kiesha Lalama, project director and Jimmy Awards choreographer, who appears on the show. There will be no back stabbing or hot-tubbing.
“I know that [Jimmy Awards director] Van [Kaplan] had talked to TLC and MTV and that made me nervous,” said Lalama. “It would become a reality show. When PBS took it on we just knew there’d be a standard and they would stay true to what it is. I think my biggest fear was that, it’s such a special program, it really is about education and so to sacrifice that for ‘good TV’ made me nervous.”
Plus, says co-executive producer Laurie Donnelly, with 60 theater-loving teens on hand “there is enough drama.”
Moffie, in a separate phone interview, says even though the kids represented the best of their regions, competition wasn’t at the top of the budding thespians’ minds.
“When I first got there I was nervous,” she said. “You never know what to expect. Some of them could be divas. But everyone was really down to earth, modest, friendly and nice. It was very surprising, we were one big happy family.” Although she has yet to see the show, she believes it will focus more squarely on the “putting it together” aspect than the competition.
Shultz hopes “Broadway or Bust” will serve as a reminder of the vitality of the theater and our responsibility to maintain it for future generations. “When school districts and states are cutting funding, the first place they go to is the arts. To me it’s not recognizing the value that arts puts back into the community. With shows like this or ‘Glee’ or ‘Smash’ it brings attention to people that there is a great opportunity — not just for actors and actresses, but it’s a big business, you’ve got carpenters and electricians, stagehands, it is a multibillion-dollar business — and to say, ‘We need to cut the arts’ is a huge mistake.”
Donnelly, who nursed her own Broadway dreams after a particularly successful run as Dame Hannah in her eighth-grade production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore,” agrees and says watching the impact that it had on these 60 kids reminded her of the power of theater to transform. “The pressure gets to them, but they keep rising up and staying at it; they’re not afraid.”
“Even if these kids decide not to pursue a career in theater, what they’ve experienced here is going to stay with them their entire life,” says Shultz.
Moffie, who is heading into her senior year and hoping to land the role of Maria in “West Side Story,” wholeheartedly concurs.
Although she did not make it to the finalist stage at the Jimmy Awards — the winners have been announced but we won’t spoil them here — she was galvanized. “Being in New York really hammered down the fact that I definitely want to do this as a career and there might be times we get doubtful about it, but I know that’s where I need to be.”
“I feel like we can turn the world of talented kids on and say, ‘Go for it,’ ” says Donnelly. “Especially in these times we need to keep dreaming our dreams.”
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