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It’s not all play on Great White Way

The life of a young Broadway star can be grueling, balancing the demands of work with school as well as long absences from family and friends. But the payoff is the thrill of applause.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a recent evening, the backstage of a rehearsal for the new Broadway musical "Billy Elliot" looked like summer camp. The show features 21 child actors and dancers, some of whom were sprawled out with handheld video games as a gaggle of tween girls in dance clothes trooped past.

Despite the excitement, the life of a young Broadway star can be grueling. Although young actors often share their roles with at least one other child, most must attend every performance in case of illness or injury. And unlike their adult counterparts, child actors balance the demands of work with school. Those who come from other parts of the country are often separated from parents and siblings.

But for young stars of Broadway shows, the payoff is the thrill of applause. "When people clap for you," says 12-year-old Frank Dolce, who will appear in "Billy Elliot" this fall, "that's really cool."

"Billy Elliot," which opens Nov. 13, is based on the 2000 movie of the same name about a boy discovering his love of ballet during a miner's strike in the north of England.

Frank plays Michael, a boy who happens to like dressing up in women's clothing and who teaches Billy that it's OK to be different. He alternates in the role with 13-year-old David Bologna, a two-time North American Irish dance champion.

‘You either get it or you don't’
The two boys got their Broadway breaks after a long audition process that tested both their dancing and comedy chops. During an interview following a day of rehearsals, they talked with surprising maturity about the fickle process of auditioning.

"I think you just have to get used to the fact that you either get it or you don't," David says. "If you don't get it, it's no big deal. There's going to be some other part that comes along that's perfect."

"Sometimes you feel bad if you don't get it, but you've got to do a lot to get something," Frank says. "And it only takes one."

Casting agent Mark Brandon, of Binder Casting, has selected the young stars of "The Lion King" ever since the musical opened on Broadway more than a decade ago. He wants the children he casts to be "real kids," rather than "show-bizzy kids."

"It really is about just natural charisma and ability," Brandon says. "I don't think it's something you can teach."

One of Brandon's discoveries was 12-year-old Shavar McIntosh, who left the cast of "The Lion King" in late August after starring as Young Simba for more than a year and a half.

** FILE ** In this June 24, 2008 file photo, Shavar McIntosh, 10, who played Simba in \"The Lion King,\" poses for a photograph at Broadway's Minskoff theater in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, file)Kathy Willens / AP

Shavar's grandmother saw a flyer for the show's open-call audition at The National Black Theatre in Harlem in the spring 2006. Although Shavar was up against 800 other hopefuls, his grandmother did not doubt his star potential. He had no formal training, but loved to sing and dance in front of the mirror.

"She told me when I grow big and famous don't forget her, because this whole famous thing was her idea," Shavar says during an interview in the lobby of the Minskoff Theatre.

After joining the cast, Shavar performed four shows a week while attending a New York City charter school during the day. (He left school at noon on Wednesdays for matinee performances.) The long hours did not exhaust him. "It gets me hyper," he says about being onstage.

Niki White is the child supervisor — or "child wrangler" in stage parlance — for "The Lion King." As White puts it, her primary job is to keep the show's young actors occupied and happy. "If they hate doing it, they're going to stink on stage," White says. "So we want it to be fun."

To that end, the cast and crew hold cookie baking competitions and chili cook-offs. For Halloween, they will decorate the entire theater and throw a party for the cast and crew.

Dark day at theater, school day for kidsWhite noted that the child actors have a tougher job in many ways than the adults. "When we get days off, they're going to school," she says. They also miss out on some of the fun of childhood. "They don't get to go to slumber parties, birthday parties, school dances, field trips," White says. "They don't get to hang out with their friends after school."

To play Michael in "Billy Elliot," Frank sacrificed some friends who were not likely to understand why he wanted to play a boy who wears dresses. "They'd probably hang up the phone," he says. "But I got new friends and I think you've got to give up some things to be on Broadway."

Sami Gayle, a 12-year-old with pixyish looks and a powerhouse voice, also says her acting and dancing career took a toll on her social life back home in Florida. Sami appears in "Gypsy" as Baby June, the young daughter of that famous stage mother, Mama Rose, played by Broadway legend Patti LuPone. Sami also performed in "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! — The Musical" this past holiday season.

"I have trouble fitting in in school because I was leaving, especially for the 'Gypsy' audition, and the kids didn't understand why," Sami says.

Sami moved from Florida to New York with her mother when she was cast in "Gypsy" and now has a tutor along with the show's other young actors. She says the hardest part of her job is being separated from the rest of her family.

Despite the sacrifices, Sami says she is driven by her own desire to perform — and not by parents or managers: "This is really my doing."

She demonstrated her determination this spring when she fractured her pelvis during a performance of "Gypsy" while dropping from a cartwheel into a split. With little time to alert the crew, Sami realized that the show must go on. "I just sucked it up," she recalls. She went back onstage and finished the number, managing a final split.

Sami said the audience's reaction is enough reward for her hard work.

"I remember Sunday, a lot of people stood up when we took our bows, and it makes you feel so amazingly good," Sami says.

Brian D'Addario, manages to maintain a surprisingly normal childhood when he's not onstage in "The Little Mermaid." The 11-year-old previously played Gavroche in the Broadway revival of "Les Miserables." He now lends his goofy charm to Ariel's sidekick, Flounder. ("There aren't quite as many deaths in 'The Little Mermaid,'" he notes dryly.)

Brian goes to public school on Long Island and still finds time to play guitar and sing in a band he formed with his 9-year-old brother and a friend.

His brother, Michael, has an equally impressive resume, with roles in Tom Stoppard's Tony Award-winning "The Coast of Utopia," "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular" and the HBO miniseries "John Adams." He is now appearing in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," which opens next week.

Brian's wrangler John Mara, describes Brian as "the funniest kid in the world" and "a musical prodigy." But he's most impressed by Brian's modesty, even though his show-stopping number, "She's in Love," is an audience favorite.

In this undated image released by Disney Theatrical Productions, Brian D'Addario, who plays Flounder in the Broadway musical, \"The Little Mermaid,\" is shown in New York. (AP Photo/Disney Theatrical Productions, John K. Mara) ** NO SALES, MANDATORY CREDIT: John K. Mara **John K. Mara / Disney Theatrical Productions

"I've worked with a lot of kids in the business and it can go to their heads," Mara says. "But it hasn't with him."

Kelsey Fowler's mother, Tammy, is also aware of the perils of child stardom. At age 12, Kelsey is already a Broadway veteran.

"My husband and I work real hard at keeping her grounded," Tammy Fowler says.

Kelsey has appeared in the Broadway revival of "Sunday in the Park With George" and Tony Award-winning "Grey Gardens." Since late June, she has been one of three young actresses playing Jane Banks in "Mary Poppins."

"I just love the lights shining on you," Kelsey says about being onstage.

Sharing the role with two other girls allows Kelsey to go to school at her home in New Jersey, which she prefers to tutoring.

She can also schedule sleep-overs with her two best friends and spend more time with her 10-year-old brother Micah, who has cerebral palsy.

"I want her to just have fun," Tammy Fowler says. "Anytime she wants to stop, she knows that she just needs to tell us."

After more than eight years with "The Lion King," wrangler White knows that many of the children in her care will not go on to acting careers as adults.

"I just don't want any kid to think: This is the best thing that's ever going to happen to me in my life," she says. "You're 12. There are so many adventures out there in the world for you."

Brandon called the career path of young stars a "crapshoot" after they hit adolescence. Some, he says, will grow out of their roles. Frank and David ("Billy Elliot"), who have seen their contracts, know that a growth spurt could cost them their jobs. Others will simply decide that the stage is not for them.

In fact, some of these young actors are already beginning to imagine lives offstage.

Before leaving "The Lion King," Shavar's goal was to play Simba as an adult. Now that he's joined a football team, a future as a quarterback seems more appealing. "I'm thinking like a young Eli Manning," he says.

Even Kelsey has a fallback career in mind.

"If the acting doesn't work out," she says, "I kind of want to be an astronaut."