Musical Round Up: Musicals Led by Young Actors

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By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

In The Secret Garden, the lead character Mary Lennox is played by a young woman, usually 12 or under. In this video round up, we’re celebrating other shows led by young actors.


Annie is probably the most famous show led by a young actor, perhaps most notably led by Andrea McArdle in the original stage version. People certainly have strong feelings about the show – either they love it or they hate it. The story of a young, determined, red-headed orphan who is adopted by a wealthy man (with a few obstacles along the way) has been a launching pad for many talented folks. With several reincarnations, including film or TV versions starring the likes of grown-up actors Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Tim Curry, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Alan Cumming, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx at various times, this musical is made new for each generation. Thank goodness, because it provides an opportunity for a whole new set of child actors to take the stage, including one particularly shining star who gets to play the eponymous role. (I forgot how incredibly acrobatic “Hard Knock Life” is in the 1982 movie!)


You gotta love those stories about singing orphans! The foil to Annie, Oliver! is based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist and tells the story of a young orphan boy who is sold by the orphanage and then has to make his own way, only to be – you guessed it – adopted by a wealthy family. In between the orphanage and the wealthy home, he encounters a band of street kids and a heart-of-gold sex worker who ends up dying protecting Oliver. But hey, it all ends happily! This show provides another great opportunity for a huge cast of children. Word is there’s a new film version in production, though no word yet on the casting for the youths. (One of my personal favorite versions of this story is the 1988 animated film Oliver & Company, but since that movie was not led by a human child, it unfortunately didn’t make the official list.)


Yet another youth-heavy production, the show’s music and lyrics were written by British comedian Tim Minchin (who recently wrote the music and lyrics for Groundhog’s Day), and was based on the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. Matilda is a bookish primary school student who has abysmal parents, a terrifying brother and an abusive headmistress. Thank goodness she has a few good friends, and an amazing, lovely, supportive teacher, Ms. Honey, who herself is an orphan and the niece of that abusive headmistress. After one push too many from her parents, Matilda realizes that she has telekinetic powers, and through a series of events, finally gets to be adopted by Miss Honey. And read books forever, ostensibly. That’s the dream for all of us, I think.

Billy Elliot

The musical, based on the 2000 movie of the same name, has music written by Elton John. The plot revolves around motherless Billy (what is it with the motherless kids in musicals?! I thought that was only a Disney thing…) who trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes. Or tap shoes, as the case may be. It is also probably one of THE most strenuous roles for a young actor, which you get a taste of in this performance of “Angry Dance” at the 2009 Tony Awards. The three youngsters who split the role in the original Broadway production, David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish, are the youngest recipients of a Tony Award ever (with Daisy Eagan in her role as Mary Lennox the youngest female recipient).

The Secret Garden

Last but not least, The Secret Garden! Mary Lennox is truly the lead actress in this show (though she’s surrounded by some fantastic grown-up actors as well) as we follow her character arc from losing everything in India, to moving to live with strangers in Yorkshire, to bringing those strangers and a garden back to exuberant life. Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, this show originally premiered on Broadway in 1991 and The 5th Avenue’s co-production with Shakespeare Theatre Company has already been announced for a forthcoming Broadway revival, with Daisy Eagan (who originated the role of Mary Lennox, for which she won a Tony as mentioned above) as Martha.

What’s your favorite musical with kids as lead or featured actors? Let us know in the comments!

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