Guest column: DSA students join 25th anniversary 'Secret Garden' concert

The Secret Garden. Lincoln Center. Denver Scool of the Arts
Fifty Denver School of the Arts students were among the 200-member choir who sang in one of the two recent 25th anniversary concerts for ‘The Secret Garden.’ Photos courtesy Shawn Hann.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two 25th anniversary concert performances of The Secret Garden were held Feb. 21-22 at the Lincoln Center starring Denver native Sierra Boggess and her Love Never Dies co-star, Ramin Karimloo. The performances each featured separate choirs with more than 200 singers from the across the United States, including 50 students from Denver School of the Arts. We asked two of those students to share their experiences with DCPA NewsCenter readers.

By Aleksandra Kay and Alice Zelenko
For the DCPA NewsCenter

We recently had the honor of traveling to New York City with our choir group of 50 from Denver School of the Arts to perform in one of the 25th Anniversary performances of The Secret Garden at the Lincoln Center alongside an all-star cast that included some of the show’s original Broadway cast members from 1991.

It was the learning – and résumé-building – experience of a lifetime. We built more skills and friendships over that short weekend than you can imagine. It also was challenging, and it had its drawbacks.

When we landed in New York City, simultaneously excited and drained from travel and adrenaline, we were met by a huge bus. Once in the center of Times Square, we checked into the Crowne Plaze – the hotel where we would not only sleep, but also where all of our rehearsals would take place. We had time to eat before our first rehearsal, so everyone split up to find grub in the city that never sleeps. Our group chose some greasy (but rather good) pizza. We encountered an angry man who was cursing about his order to anyone who could hear – an authentic New York experience, to say the least.

(Pictured above right: Guest columnists Aleksandra Kay, left, and Alice Zelenko.)

When we got back, we were ready for our first rehearsal. It was only a choir rehearsal, but it came with expectations. For example, you are expected to know your parts before you arrive. This is a fundamental truth of any professional acting experience. No actor (we would hope) comes into the first day of a Broadway show without some knowledge of the lines, music and story. For the choir, the same is true. We learned the music in the weeks before we arrived.

The 50 Denver School of the Arts students only made up about a quarter of the 200-person choir. We had a few rehearsals all together. We were even given choreography and objectives and other direction.

Over the course of the trip, we did have multiple blocks of free time. We wanted to get out of Times Square, so the DSA group took a bus tour of the city. We were shown all over from the Lower East Side all the way to the Upper West Side. We saw Battery Park, the 9-11 Memorial, Soho and Central Park. We were blown away by all the different cultures New York City has to offer.

​We had the amazing opportunity to see the Broadway revival of The Color Purple with a cast that includes Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks. The intimate theatre brought the audience up close for what proved to be a truly magical experience. Not a single person in that audience escaped without tears.

Our next rehearsal was with the renowned principal cast of The Secret Garden, including Cheyenne Jackson, Ramin Karimloo and Sydney Lucas. Our encounter included a Q&A with the cast. The actors shared their own experiences. They talked about what made them fall in love with theatre and what drives them to continue in such a demanding profession. Every one of them encouraged us, as rising artists, to follow our ambitious dreams. They told us that if you have the right work ethic, and if you stay humble and considerate, you could possibly “make it.” But their definition of “making it” doesn’t really match the superficial meaning of success we have ingrained into our minds. To them, “making it” simply means the ability to create art, collaborate, and truly affect an audience.

During a break, we got to talk with individual cast members. Talking with Cheyenne Jackson and Ben Platt, both incredibly successful actors who are living out our dreams, was an experience we will never forget.

As we came back together for the last part of rehearsal, we got to see the cast in action. This was a real Broadway rehearsal. The professionalism on display in that room is something you never see in rehearsals for a high-school production. The speed at which tasks were accomplished was incredible. There was a complete absence of distractions.

Here are a few of the quotes we wrote down from that incredible group of artists:

  • “Have fun. Be stupid. Enjoy.”
  • “Let ‘no’ be a motivator.”
  • “Your best acting training is your life.”
  • “Stay inspired.”
  • “Everyone is afraid.”
  • “Don’t waste time trying not to be yourself.”
  • “The only stupid question is the one not asked.”

Our free time was ours to create our own experience in the city most of us would like to call home one day. On Sunday morning, my group of five friends chose to go down to the SoHo neighorhood, which is the area south of Houston Street. We navigated the intricate subway system and found ourselves enjoying a quieter-than-usual New York morning.  Coffee, New York and our best friends all in one place – what more can two 16-year-olds ask for?

The quiet, vintage neighborhoods of New York were a nice change of pace from the chaos of Times Square. Chai lattes, authentic macarons, lunch at Dean & Deluca and the comforting company of our favorite people made for a perfect morning.

As we made our way back for our next rehearsal, we found out just how confusing the subway can be. But we made it back to the Crowne Plaza in one piece. Later we finished off the day with a trip to the Imperial Theatre to see Les Misérables, a final expanding of horizons, and more fuel for our own performance.

As we lay in our beds thinking about the next day, we couldn’t help but ponder our futures. Maybe one day we could be at Schmackary’s Bakery too – but instead of just getting cookies, we’d be getting food for our castmates as we reported in for our own Broadway shows.

The next day was “show day.” We had a quick morning of exploration, before we all met to ride the subway to Lincoln Center together. Dressed up in our black choir outfits, holding binders filled with our music and holding our water bottles close, we entered the stage for our technical rehearsal. It was quicker than expected and more efficient than anything we had ever experienced before. Still, the experience made some of us cry, in a good way.

Listening to the music sung by our wonderful musical director was amazing. Listening to the music sung by the cast was beautiful. But listening to the music with the full 70-piece orchestra was breathtaking beyond words. When I looked down my row after the run-through of the finale, I saw four people crying. The vastness of this hall, and the idea that we would be performing this beautiful music with such a talented cast in front of 3,000 people, was overwhelming. Even seeing glimpses of the hauntingly beautiful scenic and light design, including giant chandeliers lit from the inside, moved us all.

We had a quick dinner break at the Magnolia Bakery, where we stuffed food into our mouths and recharged our sleep-deprived, yet highly charged selves for the performance. The backstage hallway was filled with Broadway stars warming up inches away from us – although we mostly upheld the advice we were given about maintaining our professionalism around the stars.

Guest Column Quote. Denver School of the ArtsThe final pep talk was professional, and the walk up to the stage was completely silent and orderly. It was clear the Broadway shows we all hope to be part of one day are places of preparedness and efficiency. The whole show was run like clockwork. Before we knew it, the performance began and everything we had worked so hard to put together was happening right before our eyes. It didn’t matter that our backs ached from sitting up straight, or that we probably only had a total of 10 hours of sleep over the past four days – and an equal amount of rehearsal. It didn’t even matter that we hadn’t run through all of the music and technical elements with the entire cast.

That night, we sang our hearts out before thousands of people, living through the art of loss and power and music that The Secret Garden captures. The show went by so quickly it felt like less than an hour had gone by. But we will all remember the final moment of the performance. Hidden under our chairs were yellow roses, and as the last note hit, a sea of 200 yellow roses appeared before the audience. An audible gasp could be heard throughout the hall just before thundering applause as the audience stood. The sound was wonderfully deafening, and together the lights and people and sensory effects created an image we will never forget.

After the show, we were invited to a cast party where we ate Planet Hollywood buffet food and had a few more conversations with the cast. We had the chance to talk to Director Stafford Arima, who told us to never give up on our dreams and to always believe we can pursue our passion.

The final day of our trip was filled to the very brim of opportunity. We saw a taping of The View. The hosts talked about issues that are so important to us. During a break, we had the honor of asking Whoopi Goldberg a few questions. Our personal favorite moment of the entire trip was when Whoopi told our choir of 50: “Y’all will be fine!” after she heard us sing one of the pieces from the show. Singing for two personal heroes of ours – Whoopi Goldberg, who had starred in the film version of The Color Purple, and Raven Symone, from our favorite childhood TV show, That’s So Raven – was an absolutely incredible experience.

As our trip came to a close, we were all exhausted and in need of sleep. The plane ride home was filled with lethargic teenagers who wanted nothing more than a good night’s rest. Homework and slumber were our haven for the next four hours as the airplane drifted quietly in the darkening sky. As we landed, the end of our weekend in New York sunk in. Content with the time we had just spent both on the stage, and exploring New York with our best friends, we climbed into our respective cars with our families, and made the trek to our homes, counting down the days until we will return one day to the Big Apple.

Editor’s Note: The DCPA NewsCenter offers a regular guest column from a variety of local and national voices covering a wide range of theatre topics. To submit a proposed guest column, email your name and topic to

About our Guest Columnists
Alice Zelenko is a sophomore at Denver School of the Arts. Acting credits include Moon Over Buffalo (Ethel), Arcadia (Lady Croom/Hannah/Chloe US), Macbeth (Ensemble), The Man of Mode (Orange Woman), Willy Wonka (Veruca Salt), Alice in Wonderland (Red Queen), Once Upon A Mattress (Jester), Shrek (Ogress Fiona), Into the Woods (Witch), Romeo & Juliet (Mercutio) and Eurydice (Loud Stone).

Aleksandra Kay is a sophomore at Denver School of the Arts. Acting credits include Judevine, The Man of Mode, Shrek the Musical, Hairspray, Footloose, Oklahoma, Willy Wonka and Alice in Wonderland.

A Guest 600 2

The view from the stage at the Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.

Selected previous Guest Columns:
Students Aleksandra Kay and Alice Zelenko on The Secret Garden in NYC
Student Nik Velimirovic on A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Douglas Langworthy: On translating Shakespeare for Oregon Shakes
Scott Shiller: Making Cents of Arts Funding
David Nehls: Live theatre returns to Elitch Gardens after 24 years
Gillian McNally: Colorado’s oldest theatre celebrates Artistic Director Tom McNally
Margie Lamb on the Henry Awards: Something doesn’t add up
Bryan VanDriel on Lloyd Norton: A name that will live on in Greeley
Jessica Jackson on Creede Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season
Susan Lyles on 10 years of staging plays for women in Denver

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