SILER CITY — It won’t be long until “Let It Go” rings from a Siler City stage with Jordan-Matthews High School being selected in a national competition to be the first high school in North Carolina to produce Disney’s “Frozen: The Broadway Musical.”
The award was announced today by Educational Theatre Association, Music Theatre International and Disney Theatrical Group, companies responsible for “Frozen” productions worldwide. The schools announced as part of The United States of “Frozen”: Love Is an Open Door — one offered in each U.S. state and territory — will be the first-ever school productions of “Frozen” anywhere in the world. The prize package includes exclusive, free rights to produce three performances; a free digital script, score and orchestrations; and a free video license.
Based on the hit 2013 animated feature film, Disney’s stage adaptation of “Frozen” opened on Broadway in March 2018. The film’s co-director and screenwriter Jennifer Lee wrote the musical’s book, and songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez penned brand-new music for the stage. The Broadway production of Frozen is currently on tour in North America.
“Honestly, I was shocked when I got the news,” said Jordan-Matthews theater teacher Sawyer Shafer, who developed the contest application and is in his first year of teaching in Chatham County Schools. “I entered us in the final hours of the competition because I wanted to make sure the reviewers understood exactly why we would be the perfect choice to represent North Carolina. I was hopeful, of course, but I understood this was a long shot. It seems to have paid off.”
Performance dates have not been announced, though all of the first school productions will run from now through January 2024. Shafer said Jordan-Matthews is currently looking at performing “Frozen” late next fall in a joint production with Chatham Central High School, where Shafer also teaches.
Organized around the theme “Love Is an Open Door,” the national contest was designed to promote inclusion and outreach in high school theater programs. Organizers expect schools to use their production to strengthen their school communities, provide outreach to underserved groups and support an inclusive and diverse theater program. Shafer is currently exploring ways to involve other high schools in the district — to reflect that national theme and a similar emphasis in Chatham County Schools’ new One Chatham Strategic Plan.
Shafer plans to shape the production to reflect the community’s diversity and cultures, with the musical’s setting in the kingdom of Arendelle reflecting students’ cultural and family backgrounds. The goal, he said, is to make sure children attending the show can see themselves reflected in the beloved Disney characters. Plans are also being developed to collaborate with local businesses and community groups to make performances as inclusive and accessible as possible.
“This is an amazing opportunity for our theater program,” said Jordan-Matthews Principal April Burko. “Not only will our students be among an exclusive group of young performers to be the first to tell this story in high schools across the country but they will also mark the beginning of a new era for the musical theater program at Jordan-Matthews. Students who will take part in our new theater classes will be able to take on more significant production roles. And, for the first time in forever, our students on stage will be accompanied by a live orchestra.”
This national recognition comes at an exciting time for Jordan-Matthews theater. The school is offering credit theater classes this fall for the first time in many decades.
After decades with no theater at all, JMArts, the Jordan-Matthews Arts Foundation, was formed 10 years ago to bring theater back to the small rural high school. For the first three years — when no money was available to purchase licenses to perform Broadway musicals — media coordinator and JMArts president Rose Pate wrote parody jukebox musicals and used performances to raise money and build student interest.
It quickly caught everyone’s imagination. Their third Broadway musical, “Grease,” sold out all three performances. A few years later, “In the Heights” accelerated interest and began attracting more students to free theater workshops offered for students after school. More than 200 people and groups participate each year in the musical and related events, which have included student art exhibitions, public lectures and community breakfasts for children.
Along the way, several Jordan-Matthews students received Best Actor nominations for Triangle Rising Stars, the regional musical theater competition leading to the national Jimmy Awards on Broadway. Late last spring, the school’s “Oklahoma!” cast received a Triangle Rising Stars nomination for Best Ensemble. Though he was not on the Jordan-Matthews staff at the time, Shafer was hired as director for the production, an experience that led him to pursue a career in teaching theater.
And now, the program has received national attention by being awarded the state’s first high school production of “Frozen.”
“This is a huge win for our students,” said Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson. “I applaud new theater teacher Sawyer Shafer for aiming so high and working with JMArts to pursue this amazing opportunity for students. What could be better during this inaugural year of the program than to be recognized for the work and the long standing tradition of the program?”
Dr. Jackson also said the contest’s focus on building an inclusive community is essential in Chatham’s diverse community. “This wonderful opportunity truly represents our One Chatham strategic focus by opening new doors of opportunity,” he said. “I am confident that this one experience has the power to change lives. In Chatham County Schools, we believe that the arts are an essential pathway for student success. Best wishes for an amazing performance and experience for students.”
JMArts is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, charitable organization providing what JM students need to succeed in dance, music, theater and visual arts. All money raised through individual donations, admission fees, fundraising events and grants goes directly to providing performance showcases, educational opportunities, instruments and supplies for students.
The nonprofit is best known for JMArts Scholars. Scholarships are awarded each year allowing returning JM students to pursue intensive study over the summer, usually at weeklong, residential workshops offered on university campuses. Other major projects include the school’s annual musical, a variety of public events and the New York Arts Adventure, where eight students travel to New York City for five days over spring break to experience the best in the arts and learn directly from several world-renowned professionals.