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Rex & Friends Showcase Unique Talents Via Broadway Musicals

Through art, we are seen. Self-expression is how we show ourselves and the world who we are. And when we see the artistic efforts of others, we see those others as well as their art.

A group of extraordinary musicians will be seen in a new musical production, Broadway Bound, opening tomorrow in Culver City. Broadway Bound features songs and scenes from multiple musicals and performances by a group of musicians with disabilities called Rex & Friends. In the show, a young teen experiences the phenomenon of Broadway for the first time.

We interviewed the show’s creator/director Laurie Grant and Bryan Caldwell, the Executive Director of ArtsUP! LA, which is producing the show. Grant’s background includes teaching at Performing Arts Studio West, a state-funded, nonprofit professional training facility for adults with developmental disabilities. ArtsUP! LA encompasses the initiatives Creative Youth Theatre, Veterans Empowerment Theatre and Theatre by the Blind, including the Butterfly Effect, an in-school assembly featuring scenes, songs, and personal stories by Theatre by the Blind performers.

What is the background of Rex & Friends?

Laurie Grant

Laurie Grant: Rex & Friends emerged from a heartfelt desire to create more opportunities for talented individuals like Rex Lewis-Clack to showcase their musical abilities in a supportive and inclusive environment. Rex is an exceptionally talented pianist. His mother, Cathleen Lewis, recognized her son’s need for collaboration with other gifted singers and musicians on the autism spectrum. She founded Rex & Friends in 2013, alongside Matt Wolf. They invited me to helm the program as its Musical Director and Program Manager.

In 2016, a pivotal partnership was formed with ArtsUP! LA. Since then, Rex & Friends has found a welcoming home at The Blue Door in Culver City. This vibrant venue serves as the backdrop for rehearsals, collaborations, and performances, fostering a sense of belonging and artistic expression for all involved.

What was the inspiration behind Broadway Bound and how did it come to fruition?

Laurie Grant: I am always trying to expand the musical repertoire for R&F members. Many of the members love jazz, and we have included a lot of jazz pieces in our shows, so I felt working with Broadway musicals was a perfect fit. We started with just learning some fun songs from different shows, and then the concept expanded to include a whole “story” line, a “book” which included scenes as well as songs from different musicals.

How did you select the repertoire for the show?

Laurie Grant: Really it was trial and error, some songs worked better for the whole group, as well we wanted some duets, etc. We had to be mindful that we don’t have a whole orchestra to accompany the singers! We have Rex on piano, August McAdoo on drums, and we brought in an electric harp player, Gaby Gutierrez, so we had to pick pieces that worked with that instrumentation. Also, a couple of the songs, different cast members already knew, so we tried to incorporate those.

Could you share some insights into the rehearsal process, particularly how Rex & Friends tackled the new challenges of choreography, dialogue, and memorization?

Laurie Grant: As the concept of this show grew, the demands on the cast grew too! They have had to memorize so much material, lyrics, scenes, which prop to use, where to stand for the lighting cues. There were struggles for sure! The performers with eyesight issues had to memorize along the way, but they all worked a lot on their own, as our rehearsal time is limited. Many of the parents helped, and this support was imperative in helping them perfect their roles.

How did the unique abilities of Rex & Friends members influence the creative direction of the show?

Laurie Grant: First and foremost, Rex & Friends is comprised of super-talented singers, most with perfect pitch! Less than 1% of the world’s population has perfect pitch, it is a rare skill, so they can learn anything, and have. Some of our performers, like Rex and Patrick Storey, have performed very difficult classical music, and Jazz as well. Broadway Musicals tend to be difficult musically, but that was the easy part for them, it is the memorization, and word pronunciation that was more of a challenge.

Bryan Caldwell: Patrick Storey is one of the original members of Rex & Friends and I have personally seen worlds open up for him through the process of rehearsing and performing with the group. He often deals with sensory issues and people talking around him and touching him were big triggers for him. Now you can see how much enjoyment he gets from being a part of the group and he’s much more interactive.

Can you speak to the importance of inclusivity and representation in the performing arts?

Laurie Grant: Everywhere you look, in every city, on small stages, in big theatres, in schools, at community theaters we see “able” bodied performers. Our theater, the Blue Door, is a chance to see performers with great amazing talent, who have had to overcome difficulties to perform. And performing is what they LOVE to do!

My always present goal is to get people out to our theater to support and enjoy these performances. Without an  audience, there is no need to perfect and hone their skills.

Bryan Caldwell: I think the arts are essential for promoting social inclusion and diversity. We take great pride in have accessibility and representation at the core of our programs. This is reflected in both our participants and audiences, which are often comprised of individuals with disabilities. We think it’s essential that the arts are available to everyone and strive to give everyone who wants to pursue the performing arts and opportunity to through these programs.

As a music educator and director, what advice would you give to aspiring artists, especially those with disabilities, who are pursuing careers in the arts.

Laurie Grant: As a music educator and director, my advice to aspiring artists, particularly those with disabilities, echoes that which I offer to all who dream of a career in the arts: create fearlessly. Embrace every opportunity to share your talent and passion with the world. Don’t hesitate to connect with fellow artists; collaboration often leads to remarkable creative journeys.

Continuously invest in your craft. Remember, the journey of artistic development is as enriching as the destination. For artists with disabilities, navigating the industry may present unique challenges, but let these obstacles fuel your determination rather than deter you.

Seek out inclusive spaces and advocates who champion diversity in the arts. Your voice, your story, and your perspective are invaluable contributions to the artistic landscape. Above all, never underestimate the power of creation. Embrace your creativity, persevere through challenges, and let your passion illuminate the path to your dreams.

How does ArtsUP! LA foster a sense of community and belonging among its participants, especially considering the isolating nature of certain disabilities?

Bryan Caldwell: ArtsUP! LA programs are often referred to as a type of family. Each of the programs creates a sense of identity and community for its members that is always supportive, never competitive. For many of our blind and visually impaired actors, this is one of the few reasons that they leave their house every week, and in doing so they are learning to increAse their mobility and independence through both navigating the stage and just getting to rehearsals.

How can the broader community support and engage with ArtsUP! LA’s initiatives?

Bryan Caldwell: The most immediate (and we think ideal) opportunity to support our communities is to check out a show! We have three great shows coming up over the next three months at the Blue Door. We often have talk backs afterwards and many of the audience members stick around to engage with the performers after the show. Our website is a great way to find out more about our programs and find out about upcoming shows, along with our social media and monthly web series, What’sUP LA.

Broadway Bound runs May 3-18 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm at ArtsUP! LA’s theater, The Blue Door, at 9617 Venice Blvd. in Culver City. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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