Thank You, MTI Jr. (Or, Teaching Musical Theater When There's Only One of You and You Kind of Suck at Musicals)

WARNING: I'm about to write an extremely complimentary post about MTI Jr. If this bothers you, please turn away from your computer screen now.

I'm going to tell you a secret: I'm bad at musical theater. Like REALLY bad. I selected our fifth grade musical exclusively based on how much harmony I would have to teach. (The correct answer: none.) I recruited upperclassmen as choreographers to improve student leadership skills, but I was also compelled by the fact that I trip over my own feet on every kick-ball-change. I just learned what an eighth note looks like last month -- and I not only teach musical theater, I also teach sound design/composition. So what can a teacher who wants to teach musical theater, but lacks the basic fundamental skills, do?

Enter MTI Jr.

I understand your reservations about these scripts. Really, I do. When I discovered that the "juniorfication" of Into the Woods involved cutting the entire second act, every Milky White, in every high school auditorium from here to Idaho, shattered at the force of my rage. (Goodbye, Old Pal.) But after a remarkable week of PD at the North Star schools in New Jersey, I decided that it was time to try teaching musical theater. And the only solution that I could find to my can't-sing/can't-dance conundrum was the MTI Jr. collection.

If you've never produced an MTI Jr. show before, let me explain how it works. You apply for a license, and they send you a complete show kit. (You're also allowed to perform the show as often as you'd like for an entire calendar year. I'm sure there's a school out there somewhere that's found a way to really monetize that unrestricted producing agreement.) Your show kit includes:

- Scripts that students can actually write in and keep. Such a relief after a decade of rental scripts that I spent hours erasing before returning.

- An accompaniment CD (without vocals) and a reference CD (with vocals). Without a doubt, the MVP of the entire package. My students spend hours listening to their CDs at home and then come in completely prepared for rehearsal.

- A choreography DVD. I wish that this DVD actually taught students the choreography, à la an aerobics instruction video. As someone who really struggles with movement, even the choreography DVD couldn't help me. I needed to turn to a higher power and say, "Seventh/Eighth Graders, take the wheel."

- A director's script and other production paperwork. This might be useful for someone who's new to theater. As a seasoned veteran, I definitely didn't need any of the blocking notes that they included -- although some of the language that they use can be useful in terms of communicating motivation/intent to young children.

The scripts have been edited down to a 60-minute running time, i.e. the perfect length for my once-a-week rehearsals. I split the script between my four classes (with each class taking on different songs/scenes), and they've all been doing an admirable job thus far. None of the songs that were cut from the junior edition were ones that we'd miss too much (apart from "There! Right There!", but let's be real: my fifth graders wouldn't understand one-tenth of the "Gay or European" jokes). And the CDs make lesson planning so simple. I just have students sing along with the reference CD a few times, then turn on the accompaniment CD, and they're basically performance-ready. MAGIC.

I could complain about the edits (and, don't get me wrong, not all MTI Jr. shows are created equal), but in the long scheme of things, the details are unimportant. The only thing that matters is how joyful my youngest students are when they're performing in scenes, how excited my leads are to come to after-school rehearsal every day, and how neighboring teachers frequently drop into my classroom just to listen to the students sing.

And my final case for MTI Jr.:

(This was our first day of rehearsal. They basically taught themselves at home.)

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