You can't swing a critic around Times Square without hitting some kid who's featured, if not starring, in a Broadway show.
This fact was abundantly clear in the opening number of June's Tony Awards show when young cast members of "Annie," "Matilda," "The Lion King," "A Christmas Story" — and slightly older ones from "Newsies" and the recently closed "Billy Elliot" filled the Radio City Music Hall stage.
As Neil Patrick Harris sang in Tom Kitt-Linn Manuel Miranda's brilliant opening number: "They barely come up to your knees/But God, they're singing like MVPs/And they're the reason this whole season/seems to look like Chuck E. Cheese."
Having recently interviewed Eli Baker and his family from their Glastonbury home about the 11-year-old being cast in a leading role in the new NBC series "Growing Up Fisher" got me to thinking about kids and theater.
With a bumper crop of roles available on the professional stage, what's a young person — and a parent — to do if the child is interested in performing?
I would direct them to a new book out in paperback: "How to Act Like a Kid: Backstage Secrets of a Young Performer" by Henry Hodges and Margaret Engel (Disney Editions).
If Henry's name is familiar to some, it's because the young talented actor performed on Hartford Stage in 2009's "To Kill a Mockingbird" where he played Jem opposite Matthew Modine. That fall at the theater he was in Horton Foote's epic, "The Orphans' Home Cycle," where he played young Horace Robedaux, learning about life in a prison plantation in the "Convicts" section of Part 1 of the cycle. The show later moved to off-Broadway's Signature Theatre.
The book is a must-read for any young performer — and parent — thinking about the profession. First it's written in Henry's own voice as he recounts his first-hand experiences on stage and off. He speaks about working in print advertising and commercials as well as touring and performing in regional theater. He also writes vividly about what it's like to be a kid working on Broadway with credits that include "Mary Poppins," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Beauty and the Beast," "13" and "Macbeth" with Patrick Stewart.
Henry — now 20 — offers a realistic, personal perspective but he also presents advice from a wide variety of experts on the subject of young performers: among them, a vocal coach, talent agent, casting agent, producer, director, dance teacher, child wrangler, backstage teacher — and his mother, Jane Hodges.
It is also a touching personal story of his dedicated family and how the arts — theater, music and dance in particular — helped him overcome physical and academic handicaps such as dyslexia. "It's fair to say that becoming a performer has saved my life," Henry writes.
With Hartford Stage and other theaters large and small offering more and more theater and acting classes and workshops for youngsters, such a guide is immensely helpful, especially on this kid-to-kid level,
And while the motivating factor for signing up for such classes might be that faraway star — on the dressing room door — a more sensible approach would be to appreciate the benefits of social and learning skills that such activities develop.
With a kazillion sports-related activities being offered — and heavily subsidized — in schools and elsewhere, let's not forget the importance of the arts in developing a child in substantial ways that could actually help them in life: building their confidence, involving them with problem- solving, making them think in creative ways, giving them a powerful and positive work ethic. These are skill-sets that business leaders continually say are necessary for success.
Your children might not be dancing alongside Neil Patrick Harris any time soon, but adding the toe shoes, script or trumpet to their extra-curricular activities just might give them a leg up on a bigger stage: Life.
Read my blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. "Friend" me on Facebook. And be the first to know by following me on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun