Baltimore School for the Arts students are sharing a virtual spotlight with musical theater icon Lin-Manuel Miranda in a new video released by Netflix — and exposure to the media giant’s worldwide audience.
The six-minute video being used to promote the new film “Tick, Tick … Boom!” depicts students from five performing arts programs nationwide — including Baltimore, performing their own interpretation of Broadway composer Jonathan Larson’s inspirational ballad, “Louder Than Words.”
The video shows several dozen local students standing in front of the red velvet curtain on the stage of the Mount Vernon high school. All the students are masked, but the cloth strips don’t prevent their voices from ringing out joyful and clear.
“Cages or wings?” the students sing. “Which do you prefer? Ask the birds.”
Miranda is making his directing debut with “Tick, Tick … Boom!” which is based on the life of Larson, the creator of the groundbreaking 1996 musical, “Rent.”
The video links the late Larson to the next generation of theater artists, represented by Miranda, who created the behemoth “Hamilton” in 2015. And the video links both musical theater legends to the teenage singers, dancers and actors and musicians who may become the performing superstars of the future.
The video is available for viewing on the Netflix Film Club’s YouTube channel, providing the teens with an audience of as many as 214 million viewers.
“As you may know, I got my start in my school’s performing arts program,” Miranda says in the video.
“These programs are vital not only to the entertainment industry but to our culture. It’s important for us to celebrate the next generation of actors, singers and performers.”
“So in the spirit of reaching for the stars and pursuing your dreams, we invited schools from across the country to help us celebrate the debut of ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ on Netflix.”
In the film, the main character is a struggling musical theater composer named “Jon” who is about to celebrate his 30th birthday. Jon worries he’s throwing his life away and wonders if he should abandon his dreams for a more stable future.
Tragically, Larson died in 1996 from an aneurysm the night before what would be his breakthrough musical, “Rent,” opened off-Broadway.
Also involved in the project are Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas; The Chicago School for the Arts in Chicago, Illinois; the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts in Los Angeles, California and TADA! Youth Theater in New York, New York.
The Baltimore high school turned itself upside down for a month after Netflix approached administrators earlier this fall about the video, according to the principal, Rosiland Cauthen.
“When we heard that Netflix and Lin-Manuel were involved, our eyes lit up,” Cauthen said. “Right away, we said, ‘let’s make this happen.”
Ultimately, almost 40 students from every discipline at the school — including visual arts and stage design — and half a dozen faculty members participated in the video. The students worked on the video during class time, they worked on it after school, and they worked on it during weekends.
“We really played up the spirit of collaboration,” Cauthen said. “Here in our building we have filmmakers, music students, theater kids and dancers. Shooting this musical theater video became an experience of bringing people together. And collaboration is the direction in which the art world is moving.”
Cauthen doesn’t know how the Baltimore school was selected to participate in a project about Larson, but finds it serendipitous; alumna Tracie Thoms performed the role of the attorney Joanne Jefferson in the 2005 film adaptation of “Rent.”
Junior Amirah Peay, 17, directed the school’s video submission and said that the message in “Louder Than Words,” resonated with her.
“The song is about taking your chance at life” Amirah said. “Even if you have to kick yourself, just go out and do it.
“Jonathan Larson was a regular person. He had dreams that apply to our lives. We are students at an arts school. We’re teenagers and we have things we want to accomplish. What does that life look like to us?”
BSA’s submission was sent to Netflix, which combined it with videos from the other four arts programs and whittled it down to a tight six minutes, cutting from one school to the next.
One scene shows a bright windowed hallway of the Baltimore school. The camera catches some students dancing to the soundtrack while others sit on the floor, notebooks propped open on their laps. In another scene, two students share an elevator at the school. They glance at one another wistfully, but never quite make eye contact.
The film ends with a montage of students from all five performing arts programs singing Larson’s words with everything they’ve got. The teens are interspersed with the shots of the actor Andrew Garfield performing the role of Larson in the film.
In the video, the mop-haired Garfield is casually dressed and looks young enough to be in high school himself. He holds a microphone, his fawn-colored shirt is open at the collar, and he appears to be performing alongside the real-life students.
Hassan Aziz, 17, said participating in the video forced him to tackle his “immense stage fright.”
“Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in front of people is an issue for me,” he said. “For this project I really had to step up. I learned that I’m not as terrible as I think I am.”