The Real Broadway Treatment: A Look at the Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge

By Victoria Hutter
several young people stand in a line laughing

The 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge finalists share a laugh during the recording sessions for their songs. Photo by Natalie Powers

Although I work in the Office of Public Affairs at the Arts Endowment—writing press releases and pitching stories to the media—I am a certified musical theater nerd. I love the stories, the drama, the dancing, but most of all, I love the beautiful, belting voices of musical theater. So, managing the communications side of the Arts Endowment’s Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge has been a privilege and a joy. This was never so true as at the October 20 and 21 recording sessions for the 2019 winning songs at New York City’s Reservoir Studios.

For the 2019 winners—Tessa Barcelo, Emalee Flatness, Makai Keur (his songwriting partner Julian Watson was not able to attend), Breezy Love, Sophia Schwaner, and Akira Sky —these sessions were the culmination of their participation in the Songwriting Challenge, an opportunity to collaborate with professional musicians and vocalists to give their song the real Broadway treatment.

Our partner in the initiative, the American Theatre Wing, made that opportunity possible by bringing exceptional theater artists to work with the students and managing the brain-scrambling logistics of all program components.

But prior to the recording sessions, much had already happened. Each winner had worked closely with their designated mentor and music director—their coaches—both virtually and in intense weekend workshops in the winners’ respective hometowns.

I attended several of those workshops, and watching students and coaches gathered around keyboards and scores—digging deep into the why, how, and what of their song—was fascinating. Questions I heard included: How does the song propel your musical forward? Why is the main character singing the song? Let’s try a different chord here. What other word rhymes with smile that isn’t beguile?

At the recording sessions, for each song the musical tracks were laid sequentially so the first to arrive at the studio and be recorded were the musicians, generally followed by the lead vocalist(s), and then the vocal ensemble adding their voices to the others. The music director acted as an air traffic controller, pulling in the strings here, the vocal ensemble there, finessing a lead vocalist’s note, and conferring with the songwriter all the while.

So many things struck and touched me. The aural acumen of the music directors was astonishing. Not only hearing tones and rhythms I couldn’t possibly distinguish, but also offering adjustments (at a speedy pace, I might add) that I could hear and appreciate. The atmosphere in the studio was supremely generous. Not surprisingly, the finalist songwriters were beside themselves meeting musical theater professionals, but the professionals were also beyond delighted to meet the talented young songwriters.

Among other moments that will stay with me are:

The immediate bonding among the winners, excited to move from virtual to real life connection.

Ashley Loren, the lead vocalist for Sophia’s song, blowing the roof off the building with her sustained final note.

Songwriter and challenge finalist Breezy Love breaking into tears as she took in the enormity of the moment.

The unflagging humor and patience of sound engineers Ian Kagey and Thom Beemer, the only ones among us working every moment of both days.

You can take a behind-the-scenes look at the recording sessions and learn more about the individual finalists here. Also, stay tuned to the National Endowment for the Arts Twitter feed and Facebook page, where in the coming days we'll share the music videos produced for each finalist song by the American Theater Wing. And finally, we hope you'll encourage all of the musically inclined teens you know to take part in the challenge for 2020. You can find all of the details and the application portal—which closes March 6, 2020—at

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in the November 2019 National Endowment for the Arts newsletter. Sign up for the general and/or discipline specific Arts Endowment newsletters here.