NEW YORK - As a toddler strapped into her car seat, she would harmonize to "Puff, the Magic Dragon." After turning 9 and taking piano lessons, she began composing and performing her own music and landing bit parts on television. And now, at the ripe old age of 16, Akira Sky found herself in a recording studio in Manhattan recently, consulting with a team of professionals on how best to fuse the tracks they put down of "I Don't Know What Happened," the song that earned her a spot in the finals of the National Endowment for the Arts 2019 Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge.
"It's been incredible," said the teenager from Los Angeles, as her session ended with the six Broadway singers, five band members and her newfound music mentors, Anna Ebbesen and J. Oconer-Navarro, seated at the console. "Just having that much talent in the room and having that capability to pull in incredible musicians and vocalists."
Sky knows what happened with "I Don't Know What Happened": It was one of six songs selected by a team of judges as finalists in the NEA contest. Winnowed from nearly 200 high school student entries, the seven winning writers received the kind of leg up in musical-making that aspiring composers and lyricists twice or three times their ages would kill to have. They engaged in two days of workshopping their songs in their hometowns, under the supervision of their music director mentors and with the accompaniment of local musicians. Then came the recording sessions, held last month in New York, where the songs' final versions would be performed by Broadway professionals and polished for a compilation album.
"How do you process it? It's so much to take in," said Tessa Barcelo, 16, a high school sophomore from Andover, Massachusetts, whose song "Queen" also earned her a recording slot at Reservoir Studios on West 37th Street. "Before, it was just a dream. Now, I'm realizing this is something I'll be able to do with my life."
If you've ever wondered what goes on with government support of the arts - a relatively minuscule portion of the federal budget ($155 million for 2019) that the Trump administration tried to delete before being blocked by Congress - the songwriting challenge offers one intriguing window. The program costs around $160,000, according to Greg Reiner, who has been the NEA's director of theater and musical theater since 2015. As with the seed money dedicated to most artistic endeavors, the potential creative payoff cannot be tabulated on a spreadsheet.
"Whether they become musical theater artists or not, we hope this just empowers them to find their creative voices," Reiner said of the competition, now in its third year. It is administered for the NEA by the American Theatre Wing, the Broadway organization that founded the Tony Awards and offers theater grants and scholarships. The Wing adjudicates the contest, hires the mentors and organizes the recording sessions. Support also comes from Disney Theatrical Productions and theatrical publisher Samuel French.
The competition is still evolving, as the NEA looks for ways to reach aspiring composers and encourage more entrants from less advantaged backgrounds; a lot of the winners tend to come from families with the resources for music lessons and summer arts camps. Given that talent, not privilege, should be the chief admission criteria for a life in the arts, a federally sponsored music contest should cast the widest possible net for applications. In so doing, it can attract kids who weren't aspiring only to write the next "Dear Evan Hansen" or "Hamilton."
"I had never written with musical theater in mind," said Brianna "Breezy" Love, an 18-year-old from Winnetka, Illinois, and a finalist for "Hangin' on Life," sung by a young character afflicted with anxiety and depression, learning how to make good choices. (No single overall winner is designated.)
The mentors' visits occurred in August and September. When Patrick Sulken and César Alvarez arrived to work with Love, they gave her a lot of notes about how to refine "Hangin' on Life." She went home, grabbed her guitar, made the changes, and "The next day, I played it, and they started crying. That meant so much to me." she said.
On a Sunday in October, Sky, Barcelo and Love were the first to record their songs. (The other songwriting winners are Emalee Flatness, from Willard, Missouri; Makai Keur and Julian Watson, from Franklin, Tennessee; and Sophia Schwaner, from Staunton, Virginia.) Sky was up first with "I Don't Know What Happened" - a number with gorgeous, complex harmonies and a dreamy, jazzy, doo-wop spirit. It's about a 17-year-old who, through a time portal in a vintage record store, travels back 50 years and unexpectedly meets her grandmother as a young woman. Her fear is their encounter will irrevocably alter her grandmother's future.
"Now I'm stuck in the now, but my mind's in the past/ And my head is about to explode," goes the song, which was recorded by Gizel Jimenez - the current Nessarose in Broadway's "Wicked." "Because no one has yet understood me like her/ Now I'm afraid she'll spend her life alone."
Among the vocalists recruited for the song was Margo Seibert, who portrayed Adrian in the Broadway musical version of "Rocky." Other artists hired to record winning entries include Derek Klena ("Anastasia"), A.J. Shively ("Bright Star") and Kalyn West ("The Prom").
The songwriters took turns in the booth, some sitting quietly, others rising to dance gleefully to the rhythms they devised. During her session, Sky approached Ebbesen, her music director, for suggestions on tweaking the singers' timing and phrasings. She seemed unintimidated by the pros.
"She's always been a perfectionist," said her mother, Shelley Meals, a television writer, who sat on a sofa, watching the session through the glass partition in the control room. "She's always been pretty good at taking other people's thoughts. I think it helps her find her voice."