High school grad seeks college degree toward pop stardom

Meghan Mahowald is a senior at the L.A. County High School for the Arts. She rehearses her graduation show in her "Musical Theater Ensemble" class.
Meghan Mahowald is a senior at the L.A. County High School for the Arts. She rehearses her graduation show in her "Musical Theater Ensemble" class. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Arts educators say this year’s high school graduations include more students interested in the performing arts than ever. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez introduces a Southland graduating senior who’s decided to pursue a new type of college degree that she hopes will start her on the road to pop music stardom.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: A rehearsal room at the L.A. County High School for the Arts is strewn with yearbooks. Tears stream down senior Meghan Mahowald’s cheeks.

Meghan Mahowald: Because it’s the last class in high school.
Guzman-Lopez: What’s going through your mind?
Mahowald: It’s scary but exciting at the same time, I’m just sad.

Guzman-Lopez: Sad that she’s leaving this class, Musical Theater Ensemble, and the place that’s shaped her.

Mahowald: I just learned who I am and what kind of friends I want to be around. And the type of person I am, who I want to be. I’ve learned everything from music to study habits to how to be a human in this world, you know, the way I’ve established my morals, I’ve established who I am here.

Guzman-Lopez: She’s been accepted to college, and she has a summer job lined up. But that’s not foremost on her mind. Her class just wrapped up its semester project, four performances of the musical Les Miserables, and the 29 seniors have a couple of hours to choreograph their high school graduation performance, just days away. Choreographer Erica Robson drills them through rehearsal.

Erica Robson: Energy!

Guzman-Lopez: This public school's formula of strict academics and conservatory level arts training has produced graduates that include singer Josh Groban, actor Jenna Elfman, and Corbin Bleu, one of the original cast members of High School Musical. Some graduates seek college degrees in the arts while others jump straight into show business. The high school’s theater department chair, Lois Hunter, says she marvels at the growing ranks of high school grads with a drive to perform.

Lois Hunter: What Meghan is going to bump up against, are kids who are very talented. Now some of them may not have had the means or the opportunity to get as much has Meghan has from our program, but there’s still going to be that raw talent and that drive.

Guzman-Lopez: The senior show’s coming together. Students decided on a song from “Les Mis” and another from the musical “I Sing.”

["5, 6, 7, 8..."]

Guzman-Lopez: The ones who’ll make it in show business, says the school’s musical theater director Gary Soerensen, will be the ones who cultivate multiple talents.

Gary Soerensen: I believe the real life lesson is what musical theater is all about, which is a triple threat. You have to be able to sing, you have to be able to dance, and you have to be able to act.

Guzman-Lopez: Meghan Mahowald’s fed her passion for singing and dancing since elementary school. Her instructors say her acting’s improved. She wants to become another kind of triple threat: a songwriter, performer, and music producer.

Mahowald: Back in the day, when Britney was – I still think she’s amazing. I’m still obsessed with her, Britney Spears by the way, as a child I was obsessed with Britney Spears. I had all her posters, all her albums. I think her very first album is what, when I was a child, I was like that’s what I want to do, is I want to be a recording artist and perform like that.

Guzman-Lopez: Mahowald considered applying to musical theater programs at several colleges. Eventually she set her sights on a new degree program she hopes will help her fulfill her dream – popular music performance at the University of Southern California. This original composition was part of her successful college application.

Mahowald: He had to go so soon, and leave us all behind. All the memories we had of you, I can’t seem to find.

That’s the chorus of one of the songs I wrote.

Guzman-Lopez: Her father passed away five years ago.

At USC, she’ll get intensive instruction in songwriting, rhythm, pop music history, and studio production. She hopes to graduate with an album, experience, and the connections she knows she’ll need. But for now, she and her two-dozen fellow seniors have to worry about hitting the right notes on the “Les Mis” showstopper that’s about ending a chapter and beginning a new one.

["One Day More" from Les Miserables]

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