The new PBS reality series "Broadway or Bust" follows 60 of the nation's top high school musical performers as they take an exhilarating journey to New York City to participate in a "theatrical boot camp" and compete for a chance at stardom.
On the surface, that might sound like an "American Idol" for wannabe stage divas. For the kids, it felt like something very different.
"My sense of 'American Idol' is that it's purely focused on the competition and beating out everybody else," said Nicholas Wetherbee, a San Mateo High School graduate who participated in the program. "This was more about putting a show together -- the finished product. And at the end, when the finalists were announced, there were no hurt feelings, no tears. We just supported and cheered each other on."
Hanna Berggren, who represented Menlo-Atherton High School, had a similar assessment.
"I thought there would be some mean girls in the mix. I thought there would be a cutthroat competition," she said. "But we turned out to be such an incredible family. I know that sounds cheesy, but it's true."
Wetherbee and Berggren, the only Bay Area representatives, qualified by capturing Stage Top Honor Awards in a regional competition. Berggren, who was one of the few juniors in the running, won for her portrayal of Princess Winifred in "Once Upon a Mattress." Wetherbee, who has since moved on to Duke University, was nominated for his performance as Sky Masterson in "Guys
They thus became eligible to vie for the National High School Musical Theater Awards -- aka the Jimmy Awards. It's an event that has been held annually since 2009, but this is the first time that television cameras have captured the process.
Altogether, the program was open to 50,000 student performers across the country. The 60 who made it are considered "triple threats" -- kids who excel in singing, dancing and acting.
Over three compelling installments, "Broadway or Bust" follows the talented teens through a week of intense coaching and rehearsals led by notable stage pros as they put together a musical revue. Episode 3 culminates with the kids performing group medleys and partial solos in front of a group of industry experts.
The group is then whittled to six finalists, who return to the stage to perform solo routines. Of those six, one boy and one girl are crowned winners.
"They are incredible kids who put themselves out there, against the odds, and they rise to the occasion, and I think that's what we wanted to show," said Laurie Donnelly, executive producer of "Broadway or Bust." "They're kids with passion. Kids who are willing to be vulnerable. Kids who still dream dreams. And I think we're in an era where it's important to still do that."
Wetherbee and Berggren both say their experience in New York was full of "wow" moments, not the least of which was stepping onto the stage for the first time at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway, current home of "The Lion King."
"It's just simply incomparable to anything else you can do," Wetherbee said. "I can go sky-diving tomorrow, and it just wouldn't be the same. It's the most awe-inspiring thing I've done in my life."
Added Berggren, "It just took my breath away. I was completely speechless. It will be embedded in my memory forever."
'Broadway Or Bust'
When: 8 p.m. Sunday