Jenna Hopkins burst into tears when she learned she had been cast to play a leading role in the upcoming musical The Phantom of the Opera at Cherry Hill High School West, where she is a junior.
"I'm so excited about this," gushed Hopkins, 17, who has performed in five musicals at the South Jersey school. "I've been singing these songs in the shower."
The show almost had an unexpected ending. A funding crisis threatened to derail the production, but a last-minute bailout by the school district kept rehearsals on track without missing a beat. Now, parents have formed a Theater Boosters club to raise money for extras to keep the shows running in the future.
Across the region, public school districts have struggled to keep arts in the schools, despite tough economic times when such programs are typically cut or scaled back. Some students have the chance to participate in arts, music, dance and theater programs, while others have little or no opportunity.
Some school officials have turned to creative fund-raising to fill the gap.
In Philadelphia, the city's premier arts school was rescued by some of its most famous alums after its spring musical was canceled in 2013 because of budget cuts. A $40,000 donation from Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of the Roots was used to start a foundation in 2014 for the Philadelphia Creative and Performing Arts High School to restore the cuts. Principal Joanne Beaver, a lifelong arts booster, also enlisted support from members of Boyz II Men, also alums.
Meanwhile, Chester Upland School Superintendent Juan Baughn wants to focus on what he calls the "Quad-four As" to help turn around the financially and academically challenged Delaware County district. His priorities are academics, athletics, arts and activities for the district's more than 3,200 students.
Baughn, who became superintendent last summer after serving in an interim capacity for six months, revived the band at Chester High and formed a faculty and staff choir. A tuba player himself, he wants to eventually offer theater and more activities.
"I'm finding a way to make it happen," Baughn said. " I want our young people to have what they deserve. No matter where you live, you should have these things."
A study last year by Arts Ed NJ found that 99 percent of New Jersey schools provide arts education, and only 26 schools statewide that enroll 9,160 students reported offering no arts instruction. The survey also found that only 11 percent of students have access to all four arts disciplines, dance, music, theater and visual arts, as mandated by state regulations.
"It's where there's a will, there's a way," said Bob Morrison, director of Arts Ed NJ.
For decades, theater has been a core part of the extracurricular school experience in Cherry Hill, where arts education begins at a young age. The two high schools' critically acclaimed thespian troupes put on elaborate performances.
Last year, Cherry Hill East became embroiled in controversy over the use of a racial slur in the musical Ragtime. The debate brought national attention to the school and Broadway star Brian Mitchell Stokes came to lend his support. Civil rights leaders asked the district to change the lines or scrap the play. But the licensing agent would not authorize any alterations. The play ultimately was performed as scripted with a student using the N-word.
Cherry Hill High East has had a theater booster club for years, backed by parents, that raises money to purchase costumes, lighting and sound, provide meals for the performers and run the box office and a snack bar. Several years ago, a separate music theater club helped purchase a grand piano for the auditorium at East.
"When students have the ability and the opportunity to perform, it makes all the sense in the world for us to get behind them," said Mark Oberstaedt, president of the Cherry Hill East Music Boosters, which raises funds through donations and memberships. "It is something that has become necessary for parents to step it and provide that support."
For the first time in its history, Cherry Hill West this year decided to start a Theater Booster Club. It began with a desperate appeal to raise $10,000 in a GoFundMe campaign started by parent Sarah Cosenza to put a deposit on costumes and a chandelier for the show.
Unlike in previous years, the district had said the show could not go in the red if costs could not be covered up front. So Cosenza began recruiting, asking 100 parents to put up $100 each.
"These students and teachers need to know they are valued," said Cosenza, whose daughter Gina has a role in the musical. "Performing on the stage is their championship game."
Within a few days, the campaign raised nearly $5,000. Some of the donations came from parents of former West students. Alums pitched in, too, recalling fond memories of their own days on the stage.
"Support the Arts, it's where our children can learn to be apart of something bigger than themselves," wrote Deborah Daniels.
"The arts serve an important purpose and deserve more support," wrote Patricia Talcott.
In the vocal room at Cherry Hill West, about a dozen students chosen for lead roles in Phantom rehearsed for several hours on a school night last week. The production, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is one of the most vocally challenging musicals. Auditions were held in December and rehearsals began earlier this month.
"I try to do things that will challenge my kids," said drama and public speaking teacher Carolyn Messias, who advises the group. "It's a big deal."
Messias, who graduated from West and performed in musicals, said more than 80 students were cast for the Broadway musical. They include experienced vocalists and newcomers, athletes and honors students juggling rigorous schedules, other extra-curricular activities and part-time jobs.
Because of the vocal demands, two casts were selected —
a purple cast and a white cast, the school's colors — Messias found a role for everyone with assignments that include stagehands, set designers, dancers and musicians. Last week, the lead vocals were rehearsing Act 1 accompanied on piano by music director Burjis Cooper, also a West alum.
"This is the only thing I love to do. It makes me happy that I'm alive," said Shania Walcott, 17, a senior, who will play the lead role of Christine Daae with Hopkins.
Seniors Tomas Saed, 17, and Griffin Rice, 18, who share the role of the Phantom, have been heavily involved in theater and see their involvement as a stepping stone for the future. Saed plans to plan to study musical theater in college, while Rice plans to follow in Cooper's footsteps as a music educator.
The musical is a first for Drew Dunne, a shooting guard on the school's basketball team. The aspiring physical therapist answered a call for more male vocalists and landed a lead role. He plays trumpet and sings with several school groups.
"I thought, `Why not?' It's my senior year," said Dunne, 18. "I've always liked to stay busy and like to challenge myself."
Cooper, 24, in his third year in the school's musical program, said the arts play an important role for some students. He graduated from West in 2011.
"Some days it's the only reason some of these kids come to school, "Cooper said. "It made a huge difference for me when I was here."