The really young and restless hit Broadway

Andrea Bowen has quite a rsum. This Broadway actress is starring in "The Sound of Music." Before that, she played two roles in "Les Miserables." She also has appeared in two other major theater productions and sung on a cast recording as well.

Andrea is only nine years old.

The number of shows that feature talented youngsters, like this Columbus, Ohio, native, is growing. And so is their audience. Last year, the League of American Theatres and Producers reported that the fastest-growing segment of the theater audience is below-18-year-olds, a demographic that doubled to 1.1 million in 1997. The trade group credits this rise to kid-friendly shows.

With the increase of child actors, theater personnel are facing challenges such as child-labor laws and providing schooling. (The actors' union sets guidelines for entertainers of all ages.)

To ensure that their budding thespians have a normal childhood, many stage parents opt to send them to public schools rather than special schools for young performers. On Broadway, where most shows are at night or over the weekend, attending school is feasible, though the actors may miss some extracurricular activities. Tutors step in when a show goes on tour.

The children generally are paid to scale, a figure set by Actors' Equity at $1,135 per week. In many cases, the money goes straight into a college fund. But considering that Broadway has become a billion-dollar business, that's really not a lot of money.

Bobby Wilson, a children's guardian, or "wrangler" in theaterspeak, is enjoying the increased popularity of underage entertainers.

His responsibilities include keeping the restless ones entertained in the wings (a Sony PlayStation with the sound off is a favorite), dealing with boo-boos, and satisfying stage parents. Currently, Mr. Wilson is working with kids as young as 8 in "The Sound of Music." One of his biggest challenges was explaining to the children how it felt to flee from the Nazis because many of his young performers couldn't even recall the Gulf War.

This alumnus of shows like "Les Miserables," "Big," and "The Secret Garden" says his worst experience happened in the wings of "The King and I." While he was sending each child on stage during the "March of the Siamese Children," he noticed that a four-year-old thought "it was a really good time to take off her costume." He quickly redressed her and sent her on stage.

One young performer, Tavia Jefferson, moved from Jacksonville, Ark., to New York with her mother, Senora. One of the few African-American youngsters on Broadway, Tavia recently starred as the first black "Grace" in "A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden.

But she's also been turned down for parts. How does she handle rejection? "I don't make a big scene or make a big deal out of it," she says.

Her mother says that dealing with the "no's" is a vital part of the business. "I always let her know that what God has in store for you, no one can take away. I help her prepare," she says.

Lisa Rapport, an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, who recently completed a study of children and stardom, says that good parenting is vital. "The stereotype is that [child performers] have serious psychological problems, but the study found that, in general, they don't.

"Children with good relationships with their parents turned out well regardless of how their acting careers were."

Ms. Rapport says that the decision to perform should be the child's, not the parent's, and recommends hiring a manager to handle finances. She warns that if the child becomes the primary wage-earner in the family, it "throws off-balance the normal parent-child relationship."

Even the most famous child star in recent Broadway history, Andrea McArdle, who charmed audiences as "Annie" at age 12, credits her own success to her "extremely normal background and never losing sight of what I'd be doing if I hadn't had this unbelievable opportunity."

Dismissing comparisons to TV's child stars, the thirtysomething star says, "In TV, they tend to treat kids differently than in theater," and points out that Broadway kids' salaries are much more modest, comparable to well-paid secretaries.

"When I hit my teenage years, I tried the 'I made that money' [routine], but my parents never let me get the upper hand. I had to make my bed and do whatever my brother had to do. Some parents quit their jobs and then say they're not putting any pressure on the kids. [But] I've seen parents in Little League worse than any stage parent."

When asked if she feels she missed anything in her childhood, Ms. McArdle responds, "Not a bit" - which explains why she let her own daughter, Alexis Kalehoff, follow her into the spotlight. The 10-year-old recently played "Cosette" in "Les Miserables" on Broadway, while her mother is headlining in "Beauty and the Beast."

Most Broadway kids love what they do and never miss a show, says Wilson. "You'll have a coroner's note before they'll stay home," he says jokingly, "because they want to be there."

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