With a senior year cut short by COVID-19 and a future that is uncertain to an unprecedented degree, many have called Generation Z—kids born roughly from the mid-to-late ‘90s through the early 2010s—the “lost generation.” Laura Benanti is not having it.
“If anything, they are the Found Generation. They’ve been handed a world on fire," the Tony winner says. "We handed them iPhones from birth and said, ‘Be on social media every second of your life, but we’re also going to be mad at you for using the technology we’ve thrust upon you.’ They have weekly school shooting drills—imagine the anxiety of that. They have seen Black people be murdered at the hands of law enforcement officials and nothing happen. And still they rise to the occasion. That’s what's amazing to me—they use social media and their platforms for good even in the fiery world we’ve handed them.”
The Tony-winning actor probably saw more of this very-online generation than many of her peers thanks to her popular and prolific social media presence, but never more than when she put out the call for theatre kids whose school musicals were canceled last March to send her videos of themselves singing their songs. What started as a kind gesture to give kids devastated by the fallout of the current health crisis an outlet for their art and the chance to be seen by a musical theatre star ended up snowballing into an online movement. #SunshineSongs received countless entries and led to an online concert series for senior living communities and homes, co-produced with Benanti’s friend and community activist, Kate Deiter-Maradei.
And now, a new HBO Max documentary special, executive produced by Benanti, puts the spotlight on seven remarkable kids of the class of 2020. Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020, premiering December 17 on the streamer, shows both the unique struggles this generation faces and their incredible, often artful, response to them. All of the seven kids profiled share their experience of 2020 in interviews, but also with a self-produced music video of their own creation.
One of the profiled students, Elizabeth, was attending high school in San Antonio, Texas, and preparing to go to Oklahoma City University to study musical theatre and opera when COVID-19 hit and changed everything. She has since had to defer her freshman year of college as her parents’ business struggled through the pandemic, but the experience had a silver lining: Elizabeth discovered her inner artist.
“I had never really considered myself an artist,” shares Elizabeth. “I felt like all I do is go on stage and perform something that someone else wrote.”
Her performing career began in a second grade musical revue, but by the time she was cast in her school’s production of In the Heights freshman year, Elizabeth was hooked. Still, she found performing at school very different from performing for a worldwide audience.
“I’ve always been scared to put myself out there. At school, it’s super easy to be on stage. People know you, it’s your small group. When you’re on social media, anyone could access you at any time.”
Overcoming her fears, Elizabeth submitted herself for Homeschool Musical and was chosen. When it came time to choose a song for her music video, Benanti suggested that West Side Story’s “Somewhere” could be a great spotlight of her soprano.
“’Peace and quiet and open air’—to me there is no more beautiful line than this,” says Benanti of the Sondheim-penned lyric. “I just felt it was a song that would suit her perfectly and spoke to the situation she found herself in—and we got to feature her family store and have her parents dancing behind her, her parents who have supported and loved her her entire life. Elizabeth told me she had been thinking of suggesting the song but thought it was maybe done too much, but I think the way she interprets it brings a freshness that is really beautiful.”
Watch a special clip from Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020 featuring a preview of Elizabeth's take on "Somewhere."
For Elizabeth, the song became about bringing people peace in a turbulent time.
“[Singing the song] made me feel so warm, like I could provide a musical hug for everyone out there just looking for a time to relax and breathe. I think we all need time to just stop.”
Even in the most uncertain of times, this project has given Benanti hope for the future.
“I already had a deep respect for this generation of kids, but in interacting with them on a daily basis, I really do continue to be awed by how supportive they are of each other, how open they are to discussing things and potentially not being right—wanting to get it. They’re really great about being corrected. They’re not as defensive as previous generations might be. They had to grow up faster than they had to, but the product of that is that they are more grown up. Their emotional IQs are off the charts, which I think ultimately can only be good when they are in charge, to have a generation of kids that are emotionally in tune and acutely aware of what’s going on around them without hiding their heads in the sand.
“They know what’s wrong. They want to fix it, and they want to do it together, and kindly.”
Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020 premieres on HBO Max December 17.