L to R: Michael Shawn Lewis, Donna Drake, John Tartaglia and Rhonda Miller (not pictured is Laura Barnao).
It’s no secret what the island of St. John gains from the time and effort that Broadway performers and instructors Laura Barnao, Donna Drake, Michael Shawn Lewis, Rhonda Miller, and John Tartaglia put forth in working with Love City fourth graders on their Broadway Comes to St. John show. The fourth graders get a taste of the arts while gaining self esteem, and the St. John School of the Arts benefits financially from the show, which is the school’s major yearly fundraiser. But the actors also benefit in their own way from the time, energy, and expertise that they share with the island’s children.
Read on to find out why these Broadway actors have come back to St. John for the fourth year in a row to lead this major undertaking. [Editor’s note: Laura Barnao was unable to attend the interview].
Rhonda Miller: The five of us have been coming to the island as friends for about seven years, and we just fell in love with St. John and wanted to try to be more involved when we came down here for vacation. The one thing all of us have in common is we love children, and we love to see them grow and be inspired. We like to see their self-confidence grow. All of us really enjoy this. For me particularly being a choreographer, it’s very exciting watching their coordination develop. The smiles on their faces when they finally actually get the step or some piece of the choreography is just the cutest thing. Even the following year when we come back, they run up to us and hug us and just seem so full of joy. Just the other day, I was speaking to one of the young ladies from the Julius E. Sprauve School and she said, ‘I just love to sing and dance and I’m so excited to be here.’ I asked her if she was planning to take more classes at the School of the Arts and she said that she and her mom were looking into it. It was really sweet. She was very engaging, and it was nice to see how much she enjoyed singing and dancing.
John Tartaglia: This is our work and our livelihood; we’re passionate and we love it, but of course it’s what we do to make a living. So when we get to bring what we do down to St. John, we’re not working with this class of savvy people who’ve done this their whole lives. We’re not doing it with other people who are looking for the next job or paycheck. We’re working with young minds who really want to learn, who are so impressed with the idea that you can express yourself using the arts and that you can make people feel something by performing. For most, if not all, of these kids, it’s the first big type of performance that they’ve ever done. When you have that kind of honesty, it completely reinvigorates us as artistic people and reminds us why we do what we do. It’s a sense of pay it forward that is so beautiful to see. Sometimes you wonder if the kids remember and whether they care or think about their experience once it’s all over. One of the nicest things we’ve heard was one of the Gifft Hill School teachers said, ‘You guys don’t understand, this has become a rite of passage. The first, second, and third graders talk about it. It’s a huge deal that everyone kind of looks forward to.’ The kids who have gone through it speak so highly about their experience with the show that they all want to come back and do it again. It’s so easy to forget why you do what you do sometimes. It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanization of everything. To have that love, desire, and eagerness coming from the kids, it makes it all worth it.
Michael Shawn Lewis: I’ve been fortunate and lucky enough to have experiences in different areas of the planet working in arts with the kids. I’ve gone to India and taught kids different ways of expressing themselves through the arts, and I’ve done a little of this in Europe and in the states, and here in the Virgin Islands as well. For me personally, I have seen the arts serve as a really, really impactful way of helping kids find new parts of themselves. I’ve seen kids having a hard time in school; perhaps they’re having a difficult time playing together on a team, or they’re having a hard time learning how to express themselves in a way that is beneficial instead of a way that could possibly be destructive down the line. It’s amazing to watch a moment where you’re completely not expecting it, and all of a sudden the light comes on in just one kid. They’re able to plug in and find a new voice inside of them, perhaps even find their own voice for the first time. It has such a huge impact on me personally. To walk away with even just one kid who all of a sudden finds their true voice, finds out their voice has meaning and they are capable of expressing that voice, is so powerful for us. That’s one of the reasons I will always come back time and time again. It’s so honest and so real to see that moment they have that breakthrough.
Donna Drake: The thing I’ve noticed after being here for four seasons doing this show is that something has happened in the community. I am seeing a consciousness raised in the community by teachers, parents, and the people we lovingly call snowbirds. People are starting to become a part of this Broadway Comes to St. John. It’s more than just a show; it’s an education of our young people. It’s bringing all worlds together, all styles, and all diversities. We are all coming together for the same purpose, and I’m seeing it spread out in the community in little ways. People are chipping in, people are caring, teachers are getting excited. Teachers create homework patterns for their students based on the show, and students are talking to their parents. What I’m beginning to notice is a sense of community waking up to the song and dance in the hearts of our children.
Broadway Comes to St. John will debut with a friends and family night on February 14, when the suggested donation is $20 per person. The premiere show is set for February 15 at the Westin. Tickets are $200 and include a champagne reception and dinner after the show. For more information, visit www.stjohnschoolofthearts.org.