Earlier this year, Luke Frazier, the founding music director of the American Pops Orchestra, “hit the rails and the trails” across America. His goal was to audition hundreds of students for the organization’s NextGen singing competition, ultimately whittling them down to 30 semi-finalists. But things didn’t go quite according to plan.
“The talent pool is pretty unbelievable,” Frazier says. “We were only supposed to pick 30, but we just could not not take that 31st person.”
The chosen 31 will perform this Saturday, March 9, at the second annual “NextGen: Finding the Voices of Tomorrow,” co-presented by the Washington chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. In addition to an audience vote to determine the winners, four judges will have their say: Michael Bobbitt of Adventure Theatre and Karma Camp of Signature Theatre, Charles McKay of the esteemed New York Festival of Song, and rising young stage actress Mary Michael Patterson (Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera).
In addition to cash prizes, the first- and second-place male and female winners are guaranteed one featured spot singing with the APO next season. Chances are, they’ll get multiple opportunities. “I keep using them for more and more things,” Frazier says of last year’s winners, Nia Savoy of Howard University and Evan LaChance of Catholic University.
Frazier launched NextGen because he sensed a need. “There are actually a lot of classical [voice] competitions, but no competition that we know of that really does this with a professional orchestra to promote the singing of musical theater and American standards.” The response suggests he’s onto something. “The more schools that find out about this, the more want to participate,” he says.
This year, there are nine participating colleges, up from the original five, with Temple and George Mason universities among the new crop. And already queued up for the third NextGen: Carnegie Mellon University, home to a preeminent musical theater program.
Contestants, accompanied by APO’s live jazz quartet, can sing “any American popular song written before 1970.” In addition to the many expected aspiring musical theater stars, some contestants may dream of pursuing careers as jazz vocalists or cabaret artists, becoming the next Michael Bublé or Michael Feinstein, Esperanza Spalding or Nellie McKay.
“It’s such a fun show because every singer comes out and they are already excellent singers,” Frazier says. “It’s kinda like picking the top of the top. [Plus] you can hear a lot of very different voices in a short amount of time.”
NextGen: Finding the Voices of Tomorrow is Saturday, March 9, at 8 p.m., in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.theamericanpops.org.
Have a look at some of last year’s top competitors: