(L-R) Scott Wittman, Julie Cohen Theobald & Marc Shaiman. Photo by Joseph Marzullo.

Broadway saluted the next generation of performers on Sunday night at the Edison Ballroom where the Education Theatre Foundation hosted their Fifth Annual Back to School Gala. The event is designed to bring together students, teachers, and Broadway celebrities, many of whom spoke with Manhattan Digest on the press line.

Julie Cohen Theobald, President of the Educational Theater Foundation, was the first to offer comments. “What makes this night so special is the combination of the stars with the students. It’s all about giving access to the theater to students all across the country.” Broadway scribe and star Hunter Bell, who served as Co-chair for the event and Vice-Chair of the Organization lauded his stage roots, “I had a strong theater program and a high school teacher who believed in me. I’m here because I believe in giving back and not just in affluent areas, but in all schools.”

Chita Rivera. Photo by Joseph Marzullo

Cohen Theobald made her stage debut as Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, while Bell cited his performance debut in Bock and Harnick’s The Apple Tree.

Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Tony Award-Winning lyricists and composers, were also on hand to receive an award for their contributions to theater education. When asked what advice they can offer to aspiring thespians, Shaiman joked, “Run! Get out while you still can!” He then offered serious wisdom and said, “Be fearless and try to have some fun. Everyone is so mad about everything you say or write. Let’s put some comedy back into musical theater.”

Kinky Boots J Harrisson Ghee was decked in fabulous drag coutre. Later that evening, Ghee’s alter ego would perform a medley of “True Colors” and “The Rainbow Connection.” “I’m just here to give people a little hope,” Ghee said.

Laura Benanti. Photo by JOseph Marzullo

John Cariani was looking forward to reading one of the prize-winning student plays that would be presented later in the evening. Cariani, a native of Maine, began his stage career after college but fondly recalled his first stage experience as a ticket taker in a high school production of Annie Get Your Gun.

Tough love was the message from Laura Benanti, who took Broadway by storm at the tender age of 19 in The Sound of Music. Since then, the five-time Tony nominee has gone on to have a successful stage and screen career. Still, she’s honest about the challenges faced within the industry. Her advice to aspiring artists: “If there is anything else that you love to do, then do that thing because that thing is probably easier. If you can’t imagine doing anything else, then you have to do everything you can to make it a reality for yourself. It’s a challenging life. You have to have thick skin, but also be permeable so you can bring characters to life.”

Chita Rivera and Patti Lupone rounded out the starry list of Broadway’s best, all of whom were there to pass the torch to the next generation.

For more information about EDTA, visit https://www.schooltheatre.org/home