Johnny Rabe played "Ralphie" in A Christmas Story, The Musical. Photo by: Carol Resegg
“Little girls, little girls, everywhere I turn I can see them,” meanie Miss Hannigan famously complains in the musical Annie. New York audiences are singing a similar tune—but it’s far from a lament. It’s been a season rife with adorably, precociously talented little girls and little boys on Broadway stages, thanks to the return of Annie, with its kick line of 10 feisty orphans (including three understudies), and the advent of Matilda The Musical, with a whole classroom full of cuties, not to mention seasonal visits from A Christmas Story, The Musical and Elf, with their scads of spunky young’uns, and shows like Pippin, Motown The Musical, Chaplin, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Assembled Parties and Kinky Boots, all with children’s roles both large and small.
So, just what does it take to be a babe on the boards? The ability to land jokes, provoke tears, belt ballads and tap time steps is a requisite, but so, too, are tons of enthusiasm, boundless energy and loads of discipline. And this year’s small stars have it all in spades.
Lilla Crawford is the 12-year-old dynamo who won the coveted title role in the Tony-nominated revival of Annie, that beloved tuner about the little orphan who could. When she heard that Annie, which she saw and fell in love with at a very young age, was heading back to Broadway, she was more than excited to audition and prove herself in five or so callbacks. “I wanted to be a part of it, and I didn’t care what [role] I got,” she says. “I didn’t care if I was onstage or off, if I was an orphan or a swing.”
Crawford’s powerful voice and ability to convey sweet and tough helped her beat out over 5,000 other girls for the part. Though Crawford has had plenty of time to settle into the run, which began last fall, there’s still no such thing as a typical week for her. A full schedule of performances and the occasional extra rehearsal mean education comes in the form of home schooling, though she sometimes attends classes in museums and other special sites. (Producers are required to provide a tutor during rehearsals and previews, but post-opening, parents either teach their kids at home or enroll them in schools that allow for flexible scheduling.) Gymnastics and vocal lessons get slipped in when her homework is complete. “There really never is a day when I’m sitting at home watching TV,” she says. In fact, she’d rather be at the stage door, greeting fans. “I like it when people tell me, ‘This is my daughter’s first Broadway show,’” she says. “I love to know that I was part of somebody’s first Broadway experience, because Broadway, really, it’s just magic.”
Crawford is scheduled for eight performances a week, atypical for a Broadway kid but a testament to her stamina. There are no official rules governing how many performances a child actor can play, but most producers and their creative teams divvy up the weekly run among multiple actors (factoring in things like the demands of the role and the age and maturity of the child). For example, the main moppet in Matilda The Musical—based on the book by Roald Dahl, about a 5-year-old with despicable parents, supreme intellect and telekinetic powers—is split among four young actresses: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro, all making their Broadway debuts and all recipients of Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre this spring.
But sharing it doesn’t make the role—whose requisite talents include the ability to do gymnastics as well as speak Russian—any less demanding. Luckily, they knew what they were getting into from square one, the audition.
“It was a very long process,” Ryon, age 11, remembers. “I started auditioning in April  and kept going until October. I think I had around 11 callbacks.” Laurence, age 10, is sage about her tryout experience. “The audition process was very long, but I suppose it makes sense for a Broadway show,” she says. Ryon says she got a kick out of “playing all the acting games they had us do, especially throwing a chair across the room while yelling.” Shapiro, age 10, appreciated the “learning experience,” but she particularly enjoyed bonding with her fellow young auditioners, 15 of whom would wind up in the cast with her. “The most fun was meeting all the new people and making a bunch of new friends,” she says.
The Matildas’ attachment was cemented as they learned the part together, and they all say they’re like the character in similar ways. For example, they all cite an affinity for reading (“I love that you can escape into new worlds!” Laurence says).
Gennusa, age 9, has an even deeper connection to the character. “I was also bullied at school for many years because of being so small,” she says. But she’s also different in significant ways. “I’m usually good at expressing my feelings and not holding everything in,” she says. “I also smile all the time. Matilda never smiles.”
In Pippin, Theo, the son of Pippin’s love interest, is split between two boys: Ashton Woerz, who made his Broadway debut two years ago in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Andrew Cekala. Thirteen-year-old Cekala, a professional performer since he was 8, originated the role in the musical revival’s premiere, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and was invited to transfer with the show to Broadway.
With fewer performance demands, he can attend on-site classes at the Professional Children’s School, an institution catering to kids in and trying to get into the biz (back in his hometown of Weston, Mass., he attends traditional public school), and partake in extracurricular activities like dance, cello and piano lessons. Ask him what he does in his free time, and his answer is “sleep.” He also likes to help his mom in the kitchen. “I love to cook, especially pasta,” he says. “It makes me feel good knowing I’m eating something I made.” When he’s grown, Cekala hopes to continue to act and/or write fantasy books and screenplays.
A done run on the Great White Way marks a return to normal life for many … though the definition of normal is skewed for most child performers. In a company comprised of more than a dozen youngsters, 12-year-old Johnny Rabe played the demanding leading role of Ralphie, a boy with his head in the clouds and his eyes on a BB gun, in A Christmas Story, The Musical, the jovial, juvenile-filled musical based on the same-named 1983 movie, which played a seasonal stint. (Rabe’s load was lightened a bit thanks to an alternate, Joe West, who played two performances a week.) “I had to work hard,” he says. “But I always had lots of encouragement and support from the director, producers, cast and crew. I learned a lot.”
Rabe still does shows, albeit now in his native Chicago, where he’s happy to be back among family, friends and schoolmates. However, he does hope to return to the Great White Way someday. “I miss being Ralphie,” he says, “and I miss the curtain calls, signing autographs after the performances and then going to Sardi’s for drinks.” (His tipple of choice? Pineapple juice.)
Though he considers pursuing a career as a history teacher, the excitement of the New York stage may prove too tempting. After all, he dreams of one day playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, Tony in West Side Story and Jack Kelly in Newsies. “Those roles may be a ways off,” he admits, “but one thing is for sure: I would absolutely love to be back on Broadway!”
This article appears in a slightly different form in the 2013 Tony Awards Commemorative Program published by Where magazine.Revised May 22, 2013