Like a lot of Sunday evenings, Samantha Schneider-Behen will sit in her living room with her family tonight and watch television.
But this time she will be pretty nervous.
It won't be just a casual evening in front of the tube for Schneider-Behen, 17. She'll be watching her national television debut when PBS broadcasts a three-part documentary series called Broadway or Bust. It will air locally at 8 p.m. on WEDU-Ch. 3 tonight, Sept. 16 and Sept. 23.
The series, which PBS bills as "part competition, part performance and part nonfiction drama," follows 60 young musical theater performers through a prestigious weeklong theatrical boot camp in New York City that culminated in their performance on a Broadway stage.
"I'm kind of nervous," said Schneider-Behen, a Blake High senior who went through the camp in June. "You have all these cameras surrounding you, everywhere you turn, for a whole week, and you don't know what moments they catch and what they're going to show on TV."
Schneider-Behen won her way to New York through a competition that started earlier this year. She had the female lead in Parade, a musical staged at Blake High. Adjudicators from the Florida State Thespians Festival, a huge competition that's part of an even larger national competition, picked Parade as one of the state's best high school musicals of the year.
That meant the Blake students could perform their show as part of the state festival, which is held in Tampa every spring. The Blake kids got to perform on their home stage. The students from other cities around Florida performed at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, across the Hillsborough River from Blake.
The adjudicators, along with representatives of the Florida Association of Theater Educators, then chose their four favorite female performers and their four favorite male performers from all those musicals.
Those finalists all submitted videos of performances and interviews. Then one boy and one girl were chosen for the New York trip. They were sponsored by the Straz Center and accompanied by Tina James, the Straz Center's education programs coordinator.
Schneider-Behen earned the final selection, along with Joshua Grosso of Fort Lauderdale.
"It was definitely an unforgettable experience," said Grosso, who's now a freshman studying music and theater at Carnegie Mellon University. "You're on stage with 50 people, and all of them are as good or better than you. It was a learning experience, not just on a professional level but on a personal level as well."
Grosso said he's not as nervous as Schneider-Behen about how he'll come across in the series.
"I'm just excited that people, people all over the country, are going to see that there are still young people out there who have the talent and the passion to keep the tradition of musical theater alive," he said. "They want to use their abilities, not for the attention, but so they can move people and inspire other young people who might want to go into theater."
The kids spent their days in workshops and rehearsals. In just one week, they put together a show that they performed in a Broadway theater. The show included a medley consisting of each student signing part of one of the songs from the musical that had gotten them to New York, so each had a short solo.
Finally, judges picked one male and one female as the recipient of a National High School Music Award — known as the "Jimmy Award" to insiders. The award includes a $10,000 college scholarship.
You'll have to tune in to see who wins, but both Grosso and Schneider-Behen said the real prize was the chance to work with musical theater professionals and other student performers from around the country, and performing a show they helped create in the world's most legendary theater district.
Their show, in fact, was in the Minskoff Theatre where The Lion King has been running for five years. It was, of course, a night when there was no performance, so the high school kids used some of the equipment from the show.
"I looked down at my mic pack and it belonged to Pumbaa," Schneider-Behen said. "I was star-struck."
Marty Clear is a freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at [email protected]