Modernized "Music Man" production gives Syracuse student actors new experience

Dec 14, 2013

Students in the Syracuse City School District are among the stars in the Redhouse Arts Center production of "The Music Man." The idea was to turn River City, Iowa into a multicultural melting pot by doing colorblind casting, and at the same time give the students real-world experience working with professional actors.

Over the past year, life has been a struggle for 16-year-old, Tajanae Lane. She has had to move from Syracuse to New Jersey then back to Syracuse after her father was arrested for robbing a bank. 

"I decided not to use it as an excuse to give up or drop out of school or let it get the best of me," said Lane.

Lane's passion is dance. She is a junior at Henninger High School and one of 10 students from the nonprofit Hillside Agency in Syracuse that star in the Redhouse production of "The Music Man" through the art center's theater experience program. They have been rehearsing after school on evenings and weekends for 8 weeks.

"Life's too short not to chase your dreams so i decided to go for it. Without dance there's no me. I wouldn't know myself, if I didn't know dance," said Lane.

Wayne O'Connor is the executive director of the Hillside Work Scholarship Connection which assists 920 students across the Syracuse City School District at risk of not graduating. Seventy-six percent of Hillside students graduated on time in 2013 as compared to the city's 48 percent graduation rate in 2012.

"I don't think anything is more team oriented or requires more commitment than does participating in a play: I've seen such growth by these young people, they're committed, they're responsible, they're learning what it means to be reliable," said O’Connor.

Tamar Smithers is an education coordinator at the Community Folk Art Center in Syracuse which partnered with Redhouse this year. She and two of her students are also in "The Music Man."

"When you're in the professional world, if this is what you want to do, this is what happens,” said Smithers. “You work your 9 to 5, whatever that is, and then guess what, you go to rehearsal and guess what you're there until 10, 11 o'clock at night, and guess what, it's daily. So they get that experience and I've definitely seen a change in my students."

The director of the production, Steven Svoboda, says he wanted to take a classic American musical and modernize it by looking at it through our current culture and not as a historic artifact, which led him to idea of multi-racial casting.

"The kids at Hillside were like, 'we're not white how are we going to be in Music Man? Now you're making us shipoopi? What is that?' They really didn't see themselves, and that was the point, they should be able to see themselves in a classic American musical,” said Svobada.

And, the director says the kids were shy at first.

"Now I can't get them to stop talking, now, they're stealing the stage from the professional actors and hamming it up and being the stars of the show and just that boost of self-confidence, that transformation and how they perceive themselves is more than the show is worth in a million years."

The Music Man runs at the Redhouse until December 21.