AS A SENIOR at Claremont High School near Los Angeles, Lydia Brown was already a veteran of the Educational Theatre Association’s Thespians Go Hollywood event. She performed in both the 2016 and 2017 editions of this annual fundraiser, which supports theatre education programs in underserved schools across the country.

California Thespians gather outside the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for the Thespians Go Hollywood event.

California Thespians gather outside the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Photo by Krista Elhai.

Yet past experience hardly prepared the 17-year-old for the emotions she felt upon learning she’d been cast in the production for a third year — especially once her teacher suggested she look at the list of performers. “I just remember my jaw dropping, and I internally screamed because it was so amazing to know I was going to sing with these amazing artists,” Brown said. “It was a really weird feeling to know I was going to be singing with some of my idols.”

On November 11, Brown shared the stage with a cast of Broadway, film, and television performers, including Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, Harry Connick Jr., Darren Criss, Megan Hilty, Jennifer Hudson, Audra McDonald, and Bernadette Peters. They were on hand to celebrate the life and legacy of producer Craig Zadan, who passed away last fall. With his business partner Neil Meron, Zadan worked to make theatre more accessible to audiences outside New York City through films such as Chicago, the television show Smash, and live television broadcasts of hit musicals, from The Sound of Music and The Wiz to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Brown joined a select group of Thespians tapped from seven Southern California high schools to participate in the event. They included Troupes 7716 (Citrus Valley High School), 7944 (Los Alamitos High School), 6826 (Orange County School of the Arts), 4556 (Rancho Buena Vista High School), 7303 (San Juan Hills High School), 4712 (Upland High School), and her own Troupe 2129.

In Los Angeles, the participating Thespians braved a whirlwind weekend of rehearsals leading up to their big night. “They sent us the music ahead of time with a layout of what each person was going to be singing and what part,” Brown said. “And then we met together in Hollywood from 2 to 6 p.m. the Saturday before the show. That was the first time most of us ever sang together.” They were called again at noon on Sunday to practice their blocking and perfect the harmonies for their song. Following an early dinner, they took their place as ushers for the evening’s program, which culminated with their performance of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray.

For Brown, a highlight was the opportunity to work with music director Todd Schroeder, who has coached performers from Angela Lansbury and Liza Minnelli to Laura Bell Bundy and Josh Gad. “Working with Todd was a really great experience, because he didn’t treat us like high schoolers,” Brown said. “He gave us really extensive notes about things I wouldn’t even think about it, like how to stress certain words in certain phrases.

“There were nine of us who had solos assigned, and there were a couple of people that he switched solos with because he felt their voice type fit the theme of that phrase more. My original line was ‘You can try to stop the seasons, girl, but you know you never will,’ but then he switched me to ‘You can try to stop my dancin’ feet, but I just cannot stand still’ because I exuded a more excited energy. He really took that into consideration, and he was very open to people’s suggestions.”

Some of the performers also shared career advice with the Thespians. “Harry Connick Jr. was amazing. He must have talked to me and my friend for 20 to 30 minutes, just about life and about the business,” Brown said. “He said the best thing you can do in this industry is take what you know and learn from your experiences, learn from your rejections, and try again.”

Brown will take his advice with her to college next year, where she plans to study classical voice performance. And while she’ll never forget her once-in-a-lifetime experience at Thespians Go Hollywood, she credits her overall Thespian journey with something more: helping her find her place in high school. “Theatre people understand me. You build bonds with the people you do shows with. Whether you’re onstage or whether you’re backstage working costumes or makeup, you’re going to make friends,” she said. “It’s given me a place I can call home.”

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