Wharton Center Program Matches Students With Broadway Hip-Hop Talent

Life lessons for budding child actors by ‘rockstars’

Children are often told they can be anything they want to, and then left to fend for themselves, especially if they want to pursue the arts. Paul Canaan is giving wouldbe stage performers more than lip service.

“Paul Canaan is basically a rock star for these children who sign up for the weeklong intensive program,” said Bert Goldstein, director of the Institute for Arts & Creativity, Wharton Center for Performing Arts at MSU.

Canaan started the Take it From the Top musical theater summer program, now in its 11th year, for Michigan middle school children and high school students.

“I started it with Laura Bell Bundy, a Tony Award nominee because we saw a need for musical arts education at the school level,” said Canaan, who was part of hit musicals like “Kinky Boots,” “Legally Blonde,” “Miss Saigon,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

The program started when Canaan tagged along with Bundy to the Wharton Center where she was set to perform. After a discussion with Mike Brand, executive director of the writing center, about upping the stakes and creating a bridge to professional performing arts programming, he said that he came up with the program.

“I wanted to give young people something I never had which was the opportunity to work with young professionals, train in music, dance and theater on a different level. That’s kind of how it came together and its grown since then thanks to the Wharton Center,” said Canaan.

Echoing the sentiment, Goldstein said that the program has grown a lot since its inception in 2007, with over 140 children participating in this year’s summer program.

Canaan explained how the weeklong program is structured around the present-day requirements of Broadway.

“The skills that are needed to be on Broadway today are a little more challenging than they used to be, you have to be able to sing pop, jazz, legit classical, dance hip-hop, tap, ballet, dance in every style and from an acting perspective, play different parts.”

For the children in the program, age plays an advantage when they start young, get to explore the bag of tricks and play within the world of music, dance and theater, said Canaan.

The program starts with the basics of musical theater, like the starting point of a dance, or learning how to read music while also focusing on both the strengths and weaknesses of the children, said Canaan.

“We also focus on their weaknesses and help them take a risk. If they are not the best dancers in the world, we get them dancing a little more than they would, we try to build up those weaknesses so they come out feeling like they did something they normally wouldn’t. We try to give them a different experience,” said Canaan.

Goldstein spoke about the children and their excitement to see such big Broadway performers teach and make an effort to impart their skills to them.

“The children are a little intimidated at first because they are these big Broadway stars who have done ‘Kinky Boots’ and ‘Legally Blonde,’ but they are very down to earth and get rid of the tension and anxiety immediately. There is a wonderful mentor-mentee thing going on,” said Goldstein.

Teaching and mentoring is what the program mostly focuses on, said Canaan.

“Our mission is to take young artists and create an environment where they can explore music, dance, theater and give them an opportunity to put that into practice through a performance at the end of our weeklong intensive program,” said Canaan.

Goldstein expanded the structure of the program to two groups, regular and advanced.

“The advanced group will actually do a staged reading of a musical, which means they will rehearse it, they sing, they dance but they carry the script so it’s not a full out production. We don’t do scenery or lights but that gives advanced children a chance of a stronger experience,” he said.

At the end of the program, both Canaan and Goldstein mentioned that their priority is the life lessons learned from musical theater, which the children will hopefully take away.

“Not every kid that comes through that door wants to be the next Lin Manuel Miranda. I focus on the life skills that come from theater in general. Confidence, selfworth and the risk of putting yourself out there. No matter what career they choose, these skills will serve them well,” said Canaan.