"What It Means To Be A Friend"
She started by choosing a story. "13 the Musical" follows "Evan," a 12-year-old boy forced to move to New York in the wake of his parents' divorce. With an upcoming bar mitzvah, he decides the only way to throw a successful party in a town where no one knows his name is to convince the cool kids to come, even if that hurts the feelings of the unpopular masses.
The musical details Evan's struggles to balance popularity and friendship, romance and geekdom, manipulation and integrity — the same issues confronting Willow Oaks students as they face the leap into high school.
After securing a license to stage "13," Dani decided to ask if any schools in the Ravenswood School District were interested. An initial agreement with Cesar Chavez Academy fell through right before rehearsals were to start, but she found another home for her project, this time at Willow Oaks, which has no room for a music program in its budget. But the school had a key element — support in the form of after-school program coordinator Mauricio Rodriguez.
Dani had the school and the musical; now she needed the students.
"The Lamest Place in the World"
Musical theater isn't on the list of things "cool kids" do. Dani got worried the first time she and a group of volunteers visited Willow Oaks to invite kids to perform. "A few students stood up, but were immediately shot down by their peers, who made fun of them," Dani said. "For the first 10 minutes, we had no students."
Now they have 16 students who rehearse up to four times a week. And too cool to sing or not, classmates wander in to watch.
To be sure, the performers' motivations vary. "It beats doing homework," said Jesus Magana, 12, who sings a solo as "Archie." However, he's discovered that a lot of studying goes into performing, too. "The hardest part has been learning the song," he said.
Others possess a flair for the dramatic. Sixth-grader Diana Bautista plays a leading role as "Kendra," and looked as comfortable onstage as any American Idol contestant as she danced.
At each rehearsal, the high school student directors set goals for each actor to meet, dangling a reward of stickers. Some days, Dani said, the goal is, "We have to be able to hear you on the other side of the cafeteria!" Or, as was the case on Wednesday, Nov. 10, "Sitting on the stage and not getting up once!" The stickers provided enough motivation to keep the cast in one place, although they still managed to dance even while sitting down.
If maintaining harmony onstage requires strategy, so does keeping order offstage. At this reporter's request, Dani started a journal about the rehearsals. The entry for Tuesday, Nov. 9, read in part:
"Although what was happening onstage was good work, offstage was the land of chaos. This time, we planned ahead for this, and brought a giant tub of stickers, markers and paper for the kids to make thank-you cards for Mauricio. Besides having to sometimes pry the stickers out of the students' hands to get them to go onstage, this method was largely successful!"
In 40 minutes, she wrote, they completed a run-through, a stack of "thank you" cards, and personal makeovers, as the students went home dotted with stickers from head to toe.
Dani thanked her own "goddess of knowledge," Jill Denny, the choir director at Mountain View High School, for passing along the tricks of the teaching trade.
The difference between the cast's lack of stage experience, and the extensive background of their high school directors, mirrors the contrasts between Willow Oaks Elementary and Mountain View High.
Dani reflected on her high school's thriving theater program. "I actually choreograph all of their productions, and the involvement has changed my life," she said. "Most of my friends are in the shows, and we listen to show music in the car, and we are full-on musical theater geeks."
She, along with her band of volunteers, wanted to share that passion with students who didn't have the same opportunities.
It was impossible, watching the kids dance on a small battered linoleum stage in the Willow Oaks cafeteria, to not contemplate the new, versatile stages at renovated public schools on the other side of Menlo Park.
A week before their opening performance, the cast proved up to the challenge as they rehearsed without half of their leading actors, who were otherwise occupied by parent-teacher conferences, and, possibly, football practice.
On Wednesday, Nov. 10, a group of students from Mountain View High set up drums, guitars, and a piano for the musical's first practice with a live band.
"That does not look like a band," observed actor Jaime Avia, 11, but once the conductor lifted a baton and cued the musicians, he realized they did sound like a band.
The kids sounded like performers.
The show goes on Friday, Nov. 19, at 5 p.m. in the cafeteria of Willow Oaks Elementary at 620 Willow Road in Menlo Park. The public is invited.
Props or not, costumes or not, funding or not, the kids just want to sing.
Note: The subheads are from song titles in the musical.