The Elmbrook School District is known for its strong fine arts program. Even most middle school students have the opportunity to perform in a full-length Broadway musical. The musicals had been a beloved tradition for years at Wisconsin Hills Middle School
But three years ago, due to budget concerns, school administrators had to make a tough call. WHMS lost its full-time music director, and the music department is now staffed by part-time employees who, though dedicated, don’t have the time or resources to produce the annual musical.
For students and parents alike, it was a difficult blow. But they made the best of the situation, staging an annual musical revue.
“To do a full-blown musical was not feasible for us (anymore),” said school principal Robyn Martino. “So we scaled it back to a musical revue, which got great results. I think that some of our parents really missed the full-blown musicals, and the other schools (in the district) do have them at the secondary level.”
But this year, with the help of a particularly robust Parent-Teacher Organization, the 7th and 8th-graders of Wisconsin Hills will be reinstating the beloved tradition by performing “Bye Bye Birdie” at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center, 19805 W. Capitol Dr., from Jan. 31 through Feb. 2. It will be WHMS’s first musical since 2010.
“The kids loved it and it (the musical revue) was fun, but everyone missed having that one big musical where you tell a story,” said Pat Jensen, a PTO member. “So the PTO decided they would try to fund it.”
“We’re delighted that the PTO decided to fund it,” said Martino.
Bringing the musical back to life is about more than creating fun memories for the kids – although that’s a big part of it, too. Most WHMS parents see the fine arts as an integral – almost non-negotiable – component of a well-rounded education.
“The parents have made that very clear, especially in these (economic) times,” said Jensen. “Every school is having issue with budgets and I think the parents have said that we need to make sure we preserve this because it’s an important part of our children’s lives and of our lives and we want that to continue when they move out of this venue and into adulthood.”
Why does Jensen view arts curriculum as so important, when it is often the first to be cut when the budget tightens?
“I can only speak for myself,” she said. “For me, it’s because art is beauty and beauty is truth. To me, that’s just such a huge part of life.
“It sparks the imagination. It sparks emotions. It sparks things in you, it makes you think. All those things, as a parent, that’s all the stuff you want to impart to your children. It opens dialogue for us at home when we watch a movie or go to a play or the museum, we talk about it. And maybe we wouldn’t talk about some of these things otherwise.”
The PTO raises money for WHMS through various fundraisers, sponsorship initiatives, and the annual book fair. They see themselves as a buttress for teachers and administrative staff who are stretched a bit too thin. WHMS has a student population of about 850 and PTO involvement is estimated at 90-95% of the families.
“School districts need the support,” said Margie Heyworth, another member of the PTO.
“Teachers are stretched thin. They do so much. If there are any ways we can help them (we will). We’ve had so many teachers come up to us and tell us, ‘I can’t believe what a difference (the musical) is making for the kids. They’re not as scared to be up in front of the class, their speaking skills are better, their understanding, their organization, they’re more focused. They were all very pleased to have theater as part of their education. If ever you needed reassurance that this is the right kind of thing, especially for younger kids, this was it.”
Several PTO members stepped up to form a production committee and hire an outside director, Matthew Lucas, director of tap, music and drama at Brookfield Dance Academy.
“We’re hoping to ultimately hand it back to the school and have teachers run it and do everything,” said Kathy Kindler, a member of the production committee. “For now it’s really good that the school’s supportive of hiring an outside director.”
Lucas is a self-described product of a strong fine arts program like Elmbrook’s.
“I’ve been doing musical theater since I was a little kid,” he said. ” I just think it changed who I became so much. I’m able to sit here and have a conversation with you and be social, and for some of these kids, without something like this, they might not grow up to be social people or be inclined to make friends. How many times do you use public speech in your life? And I don’t mean on a grand scale, but how many times do you have to talk to people?”
He says he’s already seen positive changes in his student cast after six weeks of rehearsal.
“It’s team building, and once they see the full result of all their hard work, it’s all worth it. They’re a healthy mix of excited and nervous.”
Lucas pushed for “Bye Bye Birdie” to be selected because of its content and score. “I had done the show before and I think it’s fun. It’s hard to find a middle school-level musical. It’s hard to know what they’re going to be able to grasp. Musicals more and more these days are having adult themes. They’re not the cute little fun shows they used to be. I didn’t want to do a junior show, I wanted to push them to do a real musical. I wanted them to sing to live music and not have to sing to a CD.”
Nick Urban, who plays the show’s lead, Conrad Birdie, says that it’s an “exciting” experience.
“I’m less nervous than I was the last time I did a performance,” he said. “Once you’re in front of a crowd of 500 or probably more people, you’re less nervous when speaking in front of a big group. As for school, if anything it (being part of the musical) makes you more conscious of how much time you have to do stuff.”
“It gives me a lot more confidence when I talk to people,” says Lindsay Retzlaff, who plays Ursula. “And my character in this play is outgoing and crazy so it kind of gives me more confidence and makes me feel like I can do more things.”
Pat Jensen’s daughter Lena, who plays Kim, is glad that the musical has made a comeback at the school.
“I’d be really disappointed if we didn’t have one,” she said. “Then you’d have to go outside of school, and this is something you can do right after school and be with your friends.”
“Bye Bye Birdie” runs Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center. Tickets are $10 and $7 for children and students. For more information, visit wilson-center.com.