Camp Broadway: Where a Kid Can Be Cosette

From 'West Side Story' to 'Oklahoma,' 65 young actors learn how to 'make a role come to life.'

On one stage, the actors work to perfect their Western twang as they rehearse a version of "The Farmer and the Cowman" from the musical "Oklahoma."

Down the hall, heels click ominously on a wooden floor where the focus is on mastering the cool, finger snappin' walk of the Jets, a gang in "West Side Story."

Both activities in this Broadway theater in New York are routine afternoon rehearsals, with one exception: Most of the actors are 15 years old or younger.

Welcome to Camp Broadway, where serious theater mingles with fantasy camp, sans mosquitoes. No hiking boots, swimsuits, or cabin pranks here. All that's needed is some sheet music - and a love of the arts.

In an age of space camps, math camps, and French camps, Broadway has come up with its own version to foster an appreciation for the stage among America's youths - and perhaps create a future Arthur Miller or Tony Award-winner in the process.

"There are so many kids that just love the theater," says Susan Lee, one of the founders of the three-year-old camp and a theater entrepreneur. "But they outgrow their local theater education very quickly."

For one week each summer, kids from across the country descend on New York's theater district to learn choreography, acting, and stage movement from some of Broadway's best. They also are tutored in makeup, set design, and tap dancing.

This year's group included 65 young thespians, aged 10 to 17. The campers divided into groups and created their own shows - including original songs and choreography. They also performed scenes from the two classics, "West Side Story" and "Oklahoma," for their families at a Saturday finale (to a standing ovation, of course).

Though the schedule is rigorous, many of the youths are already familiar with the demands of stage, despite their tender ages. One sixth-grader from Champaign, Ill., for instance, had her acting debut in kindergarten - in a show she wrote and directed.

Eleven-year-old Natalie has been dancing since she was 3, though this was her first trip to New York. Another camper, 10, wrote an introductory letter in which he stated his goals with Othello-like seriousness: "I want to learn how to make a role come to life and bring an audience to me."

"The kids that come here are extremely focused," says Frank Ventura, director of Collaborative Arts Program 21, a musical theater conservatory. "We give them the challenge of channeling that focus and desire into creating something."

The camp was founded three years ago by Mr. Ventura, Ms. Lee, and Dori Berinstein, coproducer of the musical "Big." The cost is $825 for the week, not including lodging. Most of the youngsters stay in hotels with their parents.

While many of the teens no doubt harbor dreams of becoming tomorrow's Ian McKellans or Natasha Richardsons, the camp isn't about who will be on marquees. "It's about creating the next generation of theatergoers," says Ventura.

Often, it's hard to tell who's having more fun at the camp, the teens or staff. "Yee haw!" comes the shout one afternoon from Studio 3. The outburst isn't from an aspiring child actor. Its from Ralph Affoumado, one of the musical directors. He's excited the youths have picked up more energy.

Still, not all is learning lines and how to project. The campers do get a backstage glimpse of a Broadway show, dine at the tony Broadway Grill, and meet real child stars. At the moment, Natalie's wide-eyed attention is focused on Patrick J.P. Duffey, the child who plays Gavroche in "Les Miserables." Natalie ends up getting his autograph - one 11-year-old to another.

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