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Arts & Culture

PBS Show About Broadway Features San Diegans

A still from the new PBS documentary series "Broadway or Bust," which tracks the real life stories of America’s top high school musical performers, vying in the ultimate competition to find the nation’s best young theater stars.
Courtesy of PBS
A still from the new PBS documentary series "Broadway or Bust," which tracks the real life stories of America’s top high school musical performers, vying in the ultimate competition to find the nation’s best young theater stars.

Broadway. Spectacular, dazzling Broadway. The lights, the greasepaint, the curtain calls — the music and oh, those happy, dancing feet! As American an institution as the proverbial apple pie, the flag and the clamor of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Think Mary Martin, Patti LuPone and Stephen Sondheim. All Broadway legends. Think George M. Cohan, who will forever be giving his regards to Broadway. Think Nicolette Burton.

Nicolette Burton?


Yes, she’s the latest, up-and-coming talent with her sights on Broadway. Nicolette hails from Ramona, a rural community 40 miles east of San Diego.

Burton, along with Chase Fischer of Poway, is the recipient of this year’s Globe Honors, an awards competition, presented by The Old Globe that recognizes the best talent among San Diego’s high school students. Winning top honors means getting to compete for the big time, the National High School Musical Theater Awards.

Sixty students in all — the crème de la crème of extraordinary youth from across the country — were chosen from among thousands, and, together, they descended on the Big Apple for one week in June, to compete for the grand prize: the Jimmy Awards, named after James M. Nederlander, legendary Broadway theater owner and producer.

And, all the excitement and exhilaration of that week — the long hours of rehearsing, culminating with the most important performance of their lives — are captured in a new, three-part, PBS series, Broadway or Bust.

I recently caught up with Burton, as she was gearing up to begin a new chapter in her life. Having just graduated from Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley, she is now headed to Montclair State University in New Jersey, where she will study for her B.F.A. in musical theater. But her head is still somewhere on cloud nine, as she remembers the week she spent participating in the High School Musical Theater Awards competition.


Life changing. That’s how Burton describes her time in New York. Chatting with her for well over an hour, she struck me as a charming, exuberant young woman with plenty of drive and loads to say.

The schedule was grueling. Burton’s day would begin at 8 am with breakfast, followed immediately by rehearsal, which would often go until 11 pm. There was a lot to do to prepare for the big show.

“We had coaches who’d work with us on our songs, but the choreography was really hard,” explains Burton. “A lot of jumping, like 50 times within one rehearsal! Afterwards, it hurt to walk down the stairs.”

At the end of each day, she and the other 59 students would then walk the 10 blocks back to the dorm at New York University, where they were staying, escorted by their assigned mentors. Once there, they’d get into their PJ’s and head to the lounge, where they’d chat into the wee hours, barely getting enough Z’s before having to do it all over again.

But, for Burton, it was worth it. The experience was everything she wanted it to be and it didn’t matter to her that she survived the week with little sleep.

The best part of the week? Socializing with the other students, and eating pizza.

“They were the most welcoming group of kids. So very talented.”

Worst part? Not having time to nap. That, and going out for Mexican food. Burton adds, “Don’t ever order Mexican food in New York. It’s nothing like we have here.”

The schedule included time for Broadway celebrities to drop in during lunch and talk with the students, including Tony Award-winner, Christian Borle, who’s currently starring in the series, “Smash.” Borle's award-winning performance in “Peter and the Starcatcher” actually started at the La Jolla Playhouse, where the inventive comedy began as a Page to Stage play. Borle shared his wit and wisdom about how he got started on Broadway.

“It was awesome,” sighed Burton as she reflected on his visit. I love ‘Smash'!”

Winning the Globe Honors and getting to go to New York, is more than a dream come true. It’s something Burton seems to have been preparing for all her life. She started dancing at the age of four and developed a bug for musical theater when she was in choir in middle school. Before long, she was auditioning for a role in a production of “School House Rock,” and the rest is history.

Burton draws inspiration from the talents of Idina Menzel (“Wicked”) and Wesley Taylor (“Rock of Ages”). “I love Idina’s style and how strong she is in her characters. And I love Wesley Taylor. He has so many great documented performances on YouTube, and has even done a handful of spoof videos. I tend to follow people with wide performance ranges, and he never ceases to surprise me.”

For the PBS series “Broadway or Bust,” the students were given cameras to take their own photos and video. “I became known as the ‘camera girl’ taking about 600 photos.”

Burton says there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after the last night’s live performance, which included the announcement of the Jimmy Award winners. Tears were shed because it was time to say goodbye.

“There was a lot of crying and hugging. No one wanted to leave, so we stayed up until 2:30 that morning.”

The connections Burton made during the week are ones she hopes to maintain. “We’re going to meet up in New York in five or so years,” she says, “when we’ve all graduated from college. That’s the plan.”

But in the meantime, she’s been getting together on occasion with some of the West Coast participants, including Chase Fischer, the other San Diego Globe honoree, who is “like a brother” to her. “We’ve been taking classes together for a long time,” she adds.

So, did Burton win the grand prize — the Jimmy Award? To find out, you’ll need to tune in.

"Broadway or Bust" begins Sunday, September 9, on KPBS-TV.

Monica Medina is director of diversity, engagement & grants at KPBS. She also writes a blog,