Documentary highlights best of high school musicals
Movies have Oscar, Broadway has Tony and high-school-musical students -- some of them, anyway -- have Freddy. The Freddy Awards, which recognize excellence in high school musicals in eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey, are the focus of the documentary “Most Valuable Players.”
The Freddys, dubbed "the Super Bowl of Performing Arts" by locals, are named after J. "Fred" Osterstock, who managed the company that owned the State Theatre in Easton, Pa., from 1936 until his death in 1957. Many folks there believe his ghost still roams the theater halls.
Filmmakers Matthew D. Kallis and Christopher Lockhart seized the chance to showcase the importance of arts education by filming the drama that kids go through to be judged the best in musical theater. Categories include best actor and actress as well as best orchestra, best chorus, best set and best costumes. The winners receive scholarship money.
"There are a lot of people that try to talk about the importance of arts education," said director and producer Kallis, "but when people see this, they experience what the kids experience. Its visceral and emotional."
"Most Valuable Players" is like a reality-show mash-up of "Glee" and "High School Musical." "It’s a piece of Americana,” said writer and producer Lockhart. He and Kallis are trying to lock up a distribution deal for the film.
The Freddys are open to any public, private or parochial high school in eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey that has staged a musical. The documentary follows three of the most talented Pennsylvania troupes as they prepare to battle it out on stage in 2008: Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Emmaus High School, and Parkland High School in Allentown. "Most Valuable Players" goes behind the scenes as the young thespians prepare for their spring performances, the nomination process and, finally, the awards show. Freedom put on "Bye Bye Birdie" while Emmaus and Parkland both chose to stage "Les Misérables." But what's a show-biz story without a little rivalry -- plus a few divas, high drama, comedy and, unfortunately, some tragedy? (Judging is done by 30 people, each of whom sees at least six productions in person. Additionally, each participating school submits a video recording of the production for other judges to review.)
Although other high schools across America may have similar accolades, the Freddys are said to be the only one that gets televised locally, which has created nail-biting anticipation in the community for the yearly event. Residents wait hours in line outside the State Theatre to get tickets, and the Freddys are credited with developing a sense of cultural pride in a blue-collar region where sports traditionally receive all the attention and funding.
The money to stage the shows is raised by the students and staff at each school. And though some productions have far larger budgets than others, that isn't a factor for the Freddy judges.
"It's about heart,” said Lockhart, whose day job is story editor at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment in L.A. “Just because they put on a great big spectacular musical doesn’t mean they’ll win. It’s about connecting with the audience.”
-- Liesl Bradner
Image: High schoolers perform a number for the 2008 Freddy Awards. Credit: Canyonback Films