Theater, like sports, teaches participants resilience, teamwork, and grit. And, like athletes, theater students engage in competition from an early age. The Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild (METG) has been holding student theater contests for years, but this year, for the first time, the group added a solo musical theater category.
For Rivers students, the timing was perfect: This is the inaugural year of the RSC’s Conservatory Program in musical theater. The Conservatory Program has long been an option for music students wishing to take their education to the next level, but only this past fall has the program been expanded to include students of musical theater.
When performing arts faculty members Zoë Iacovelli, who oversees the Musical Theater Conservatory Program, heard that METG had added the new category, she knew she had to put the opportunity in front of her students. There was only one potential snag: The contest registration was scheduled to close the next day.
“I immediately reached out to my nine Middle School conservatory students and the Upper School musical kids as well,” says Iacovelli. “In the end, eight of them auditioned. The kids were really excited about it.”
The competition ordinarily takes place live, on a stage, but times being what they are, contestants were instead required to submit audition tapes. The parameters were fairly strict—each student had to create a solo performance no longer than 2 ½ minutes in length, comprising both an up-tempo tune and a ballad—and the students only had a little more than three weeks to put the tapes together. The submission deadline was January 4, so most of the work took place over winter break. Iacovelli worked with the students to polish their performances, select and shorten their material to fit the guidelines, and make tapes that helped them put their best foot forward.
Iacovelli points out that in some ways, making a recording is even more nerve-wracking than putting on a live performance. “It takes a lot to put yourself out there on screen. In live theater, you do it and you walk away; there’s comfort in knowing it’s done and you can’t change it,” says Iacovelli. By contrast, she said, a taped performance opens the door to endless tinkering and a perhaps paralyzing perfectionism.
In the end, says Iacovelli, the students did “an amazing job”—and the METG judges agreed. On January 15, Iacovelli received word that three of the eight Rivers submissions, from Anya Carroll ’26, Jordan Felice ’25, and Xavier Massarotti ’25, had been selected as finalists in the musical theater category, sweeping the honors reserved for middle school students. (Click here
to see their audition tapes.) The winners will be announced on January 24, and, as one of the prizes is designated for a middle schooler, one of the three Rivers students is certain to clinch it. (Update: At the finals, on the 24th, Carroll was awarded top honors, and Felice and Massarotti won honorable mentions.)
On the Tuesday before the final results were announced, as part of the program, the student finalists received live feedback (remotely) from the contest judges, two of whom are Broadway performers. “They’re nervous about it,” Iacovelli said beforehand. “But I reminded them that feedback will make you stronger, and that any critique is meant to help you be the best you can.” And in the event, it wasn’t all constructive criticism. Iacovelli reports that the judges “were especially in awe of Xavier’s confidence and likability, Jordan’s natural acting ability, and Anya’s willingness to take risks and make bold character choices.” One of the judges, noting the school’s strong showing, added, “Wow, there must be something in the water at Rivers!”
Iacovelli says she could not be more proud of all the students who eagerly leapt into the fray. And as befits the highly competitive world of theater, her words echo those of the playing field, gym, and rink when she sums up the experience: “Everyone who does theater for fun or for a living will have to accept rejection and defeat. It builds you up and makes you stronger. But in teaching theater, a huge part of it is teaching confidence. If you can get up and sing in front of people, you can do anything.”