The first episode of MTV’s new reality musical, Taking the Stage, opens with a visual montage of Cincinnati, showing viewers that we are a sizable Midwestern city with an urban core. There’s a panoramic scan of the skyline, a hyper-saturated shot of the Roebling Bridge and students in an urban-looking area walking into a school.
A voiceover says, “In the heart of Cincinnati is a place where talented kids from all walks of life come to pursue their dreams.” And then we see it: the School for Creative and Performing Arts, looking uncharacteristically repaired, incredibly bright and very diverse.
Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts
Taking the Stage is a one-hour, 10-episode series that introduces us to five talented seniors on the “cusp of greatness.” These five seniors (actually one of them is a junior) are Jasmine White-Killins, an 18-year-old prima ballerina from the West End; Malik Kitchen, a 17-year-old Hip Hop dancer from Walnut Hills; Shaakira Sargent, a 17year-old dancer and aspiring actress from Westwood; Mia Carruthers, a driven 17-year-old singer-songwriter from Mount Lookout; and Tyler Nelson, a gifted, 18-year-old Hip Hop dancer who’s new to the school.
It’s the week before the school’s fall talent show and the students are preparing to compete against each other for a first-place title. We catch glimpses of their personalities, see their drive and dedication and, at the end of the show, we see them “take the stage” to do what it is they do — perform complex dance routines or sing their own songs. Relatable teenage relationship drama — like a romantic spark between White-Killins and Nelson — is interspersed throughout the episode to remind us that even though these kids are incredibly talented, they’re still 17- and 18-year-olds.
The series was conceptualized and executive-produced by Nick Lachey, hometown hero and 1992 SCPA graduate.
“Nick brought the idea of the school to us because he had gone there and it had done so much for him.” says Liz Gateley, the senior vice president of series development and animation at MTV. “It started from a place that was very organic.
“The idea of following kids’ lives in high school is one that has worked for us before,” she says. “We had the opportunity to do a reality musical with the top 3 percent of kids in the country in terms of their abilities. Anytime you’re tapping into a unique casting pool that hasn’t been in television, it’s exciting.”
The casting director has been in and out of Cincinnati for two years, interviewing and meeting students in order to assemble a complex cast.
Malik Kitchen and Shaakira Sargent
“If you saw them at the local diner you wouldn’t look at them, you know,” Gateley says. “They aren’t L.A. kids or New York kids. There’s something about them that’s so unique. They’re so girl next door. They’re everyday kids that happen to be so talented.”
And they’re actually all friends. They comment on each other’s MySpace and Facebook pages, they hang out in real life and they support each other. Kitchen, White-Killins and Sargent are in the school’s Hip Hop dance group together, and Carruthers’ band consists of other students we meet in the first episode like Aaron Breadon, a multi-instrumentalist Jazz major.
None of them have seen the first episode, and they won’t see anything until the rest of America does on Thursday night. They don’t know even know what the first episode is about. White-Killins guessed correctly that there would be a lot of dancing and that viewers would be introduced all of their “characters,” but they have no idea how MTV has edited the months of filming.
“I’m nervous (about) how it’s going to come out, the end product,” Kitchen says.
“I just hope people don’t portray me as a stupid person,” says JJ Howard, a Jazz major, roller-skater and friend of Nelson. “I hope I look good.”
This is a feeling they all share. They all want the show to reflect the reality of their lives, which is that they are hardworking artists who want to succeed in their chosen field. They want it to show that they’re doing everything they can to reach their goals.
“Our school has always been a positive influence on this downtown neighborhood in general,” Kitchen says. “People will see that we have good kids that go to this school that aren’t involved with drugs and bad stuff. We’re just focusing on our art, our careers, our goals and being positive.”
And as students who are training to be in the public eye, they all say that being in front of the camera is something that comes naturally to them.
“I perform for everybody in general all the time,” Nelson says.
“We’d be doing all the things we’re doing on camera whether or not the cameras were there,” Carruthers says. “It takes one time (being on camera) and then you’re used to it. It’s like anything else: You forget that it’s there and you just go on with life.
Tyler Nelson and Jasmine White-Killens
The kids take care to reinforce the fact that they are not acting, even when they break out in impromptu song-and-dance routines in the hallway. (Any SCPA-er can tell you this is an everyday occurence.)
But it’s hard not to draw a comparison between Taking the Stage and the scripted movie and television series Fame, which follows New York City kids as they give it all they’ve got at a performing arts school.
When asked to summarize the show, Gateley calls it a “reality Fame with a musical score that’s generated organically from the music of the kids themselves.”
It is common and necessary for reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills to use music to underscore the narrative. This show will be different and groundbreaking because the characters provide the music. We’ll hear Carruthers singing and playing her guitar instead of a top 20 hit from Rhianna to set the tone for the action.
“This is the real Fame,” Howard says. But even if the kids are genuine (which they absolutely are) they’re still subjected — like all reality show participants — to the editing process, which at least one person who worked on the show’s set says involves retakes and interference from the director.
“I’d say about 60 percent of the show is real,” says the source. “A lot of things were taken out of the actual school environment and shot during the weekends. If they couldn’t get something, they would make them redo it.”
The source also said that a professional dancer and choreographer from Los Angeles choreographed some of the seemingly spontaneous, freestyle dance sequences.
Regardless of the enhanced authenticity and created drama that comes along with the “reality” branding, these are talented, down-to-earth kids, and it’s going to be an emotional show for them and for Cincinnati.
“Everybody’s very excited,” Howard says. “I’ll probably have tears in my eyes when I see it.”
“I got chills when I saw the previews,” says Alex Naim, an SCPA alum.
MTV plans to film at least through graduation this year. If the show does well, they might continue with some of the students’ stories whether it takes them to Broadway or to Nashville to pursue their music careers.
“We always look for things that relate to what our audience is going through,” Gateley says. “This generation is the generation of change and aspiration. It’s going to connect that kids really are pursuing their dreams and they are working to achieve them.”
And even if they weren’t going to get their 15 minutes on MTV, “These kids are a little bit different,” Gateley says. “They were so already on their way before we came along that they were all going to end up in some form of notoriety. If the show helps them get there, great, but it’s not the intent. The intent is to show the process.”
TAKING THE STAGE premieres at 10 p.m. March 19 on MTV. Follow the show's broadcast schedule on its MTV web site.