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A Shot in the Spotlight | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City

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Maybe you’re one of those people who belt out showtunes in their shower, but are sure that you’ll never get a chance to sing those songs on a stage. Megan Worthen Nelson is here to tell you there might be a place for you… somewhere a place for you.

Nelson is the founder, president and executive director of Broadway on the Side, an Ogden-based arts organization with both educational and performance components. But one of its guiding principles is the idea that people who might not be full-time theater professionals should have a chance to live some of their performance dreams, singing some of the most beloved theatrical songs.

Nelson herself connects strongly with that idea. A Utah native, Nelson was at one time in the Music & Dance Theater program at BYU, but found herself working in finance in other cities, including New York and Seattle. “And as my soul died, little by little, I decided I needed to get back into the arts,” she says.

In Washington state, that took the form of getting involved in teaching and working in local theater. Then she and some friends in the area thought about a concept that would be focused on performing theatrical songs, cabaret-style. “There are shows that have great songs, and great scenes,” Nelson says, “but are terrible shows.”

There was, however, another reason for considering this “à la carte” approach: broadening the definition of what kind of performer could sing a particular song, written for a particular role. Broadway on the Side was created with the idea in mind that someone who might not typically be cast in a theatrical role—for reasons of race, gender, body type, etc.—could finally get their shot to sing that character’s songs in front of an audience.

“I have this fantastic friend out in Washington. She’s 5 feet tall, 250 pounds,” Nelson says. “She’s a wonderful performer, but she’d never be cast as Eliza Doolittle [in My Fair Lady]. This allows her to do ‘Wouldn’t it Be Lover-ly.’ We have a performer in an upcoming show doing Miss Hannigan [from Annie]; she said, ‘I never see her performed as African-American or biracial.'”

After getting the Broadway on the Side ball rolling in Washington for several years, Nelson was ready to bring the concept to Utah when she and her husband moved back here in 2019. Unfortunately, a little thing called COVID-19 got in the way of those planes. After one Christmas cabaret produced in conjunction with Brigham City Fine Arts, this fall’s Heroes & Villains production marks the real local debut of Broadway on the Side, featuring songs from beloved shows like hamilton and Wicked.

Beyond the ability to celebrate diverse performers, the organization’s song-focused format has plenty of pragmatic benefits for a small arts organization. While the performers do wear thematically-appropriate costumes, there’s no need to build full sets or hire the extensive casts required for full musical productions. Performing individual songs also means that the permissions come through ASCAP licensing rather than getting permission to do a full show, allowing for flexibility if a performer has a specific song in mind. And there’s the simple reality that playing the “greatest hits” can be just what an audience is looking for. “In full-fledged musicals … when you get to the dialogue, depending on who’s directing, it can either be super-engaging, or super-boring,” Nelson says. “It’s like, ‘When is the next song coming?'”

That doesn’t mean, Nelson clarifies, that the songs are performed without a theatrical sensibility. There is an effort, through introductory remarks by an emcee in some cases, to provide the context for the song within its show of origin, so that the emotional underpinnings of the song are clear to the audience. “As we develop, I do want to include monologues and things, because the acting part is important,” she says. “If you just stand there and sing, that’s not enough. That’s what people go to the theater for—to feel something.”

Broadway on the Side has some bigger mission-focused ideas, including growing its education programming to teach the technical side of theater production, and being able to produce their shows with live musicians rather than pre-recorded backing tracks. There’s also a goal of being part of bringing a full-fledged community arts center to Weber County, something Nelson believes is much-needed.

On the individual, personal side, however, there remains that attention to making Broadway on the Side productions a “safe place” for those getting to live their dream of belting out a show-stopper. “There are other theaters around here,” Nelson says, “and some of them even have youth programs. “But they don’t focus on people getting to do what they otherwise don’t get a chance to do.”

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