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Broadway Or Bust: Behind The Scenes

Audition coach Mary Anna Dennard describes what it was like to take part in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, now being featured in a three-part PBS series. logo

Brittany Dankwa and Telly Leung at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards
(© Mary Anna Dennard)
It was my idea of heaven. Thrown into the midst of 60 passionate, talented, teen-aged musical theatre performers from all over the country. Pinch me, I must be dreaming.

That was my reaction in June when I arrived at the Tisch School Of The Arts in New York City as an official chaperone for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards. To learn more about the NHSMTA program, click here.

My theatre friend from way back, Van Kaplan, has created (with the support of his colleague, famed theatrical producer, James Nederlander) a remarkable opportunity for young musical thespians, and the energy in the air that first day was palpable. As was a very large camera crew from PBS. They were there to shoot the docudrama, Broadway Or Bust, a three-part series that began airing this past Sunday and will continue the next two Sundays, as well. (Click here for more details.)

I spent one joyous week, "behind the scenes," with fellow chaperones and coaches, shepherding and caretaking these accomplished nominees. Many made an impression on me, and a few made an unforgettable, lasting impression. I want to focus on one in particular, Brittany Dankwa.

If you have been watching the series, you have already met Brittany. She lives in Atlanta with her mother, Hazel, and is from the Congo.

All the nominees were assigned coaching classes with various able and experienced instructors during the mornings to prepare them for their performance at the Minskoff Theatre. This is the Broadway stage where Lion King performs. I first met Brittany when I chose to attend Telly Leung's coaching session. Telly is a good friend and I wanted to stop by and observe him teaching. Most of you recognize Telly from his role as the head Warbler on Glee. But during this week, he was performing in the Broadway production of Godspell, and now he's out in San Diego starring in the world premiere musical Allegiance.

Telly is a Carnegie Mellon grad and is the product of the kind of excellent training that also makes him a wonderful teacher. I sat in the corner of the room and watched with fascination this young girl with such raw gifts. She slowly began to make acting discoveries that would shape and refine her performance. With Telly's guidance, she learned how to harness her enormous vocal power and refrain from giving it all away at the beginning of the song. The PBS crew was ever-present to document the experience, and you will see it all unfold in the next two installments of the series.

Her raw, emotional rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is particularly moving when you know her story. I can't help but think she is pleading to the father who deserted her and her mother, when she belts the lyrics over and over "you're gonna love me!"

The experience in New York that week was a special blessing for me. I am now honored to be coaching Brittany for her college musical theatre auditions. She is one of my 2013 scholarship students. You can see her if you click here.

Brittany's talent will be her ticket to a college education and the opportunity to redirect her life. She is also supported through the good works of the Broadway Dreams Foundation. Learn more by clicking here.

As far as Broadway Or Bust, you will see so much great talent and I don't want to give anything away, but I do want to brag on two of the nominees I coached: Drew Shafranek, and consulted: Elizabeth Romero. Keep an eye on them!

The week was a meaningful experience for all of us. We bonded after late nights in our dorm rooms at Founders Hall, decompressed after exhausting rehearsals, and at various outings, like Sardis and a performance of Catch Me If You Can. Although some critics have expressed skepticism about the awards program and the relevance of the docudrama, it is indisputable that these young performers have had the extraordinary opportunity of performing on a Broadway stage, making lasting friendships, improving their craft and learning a lot about themselves along the way.

Broadway or Bust airs Sundays at 7PM Central/8PM Eastern. Click here to learn more.


Mary Anna Dennard has been a college audition coach since 2000. She is the author of the book, I GOT IN! The Ultimate College Audition Guide For Acting And Musical Theatre and was special contributor to the New York Times Theatre section. She is also guest faculty for the Broadway Dreams Foundation, and a member of the National Association Of College Admission Counseling. For more information, visit