Summer Performance Program Student Gets Standing Ovation at the White House

Kimberly Ashton
December 10, 2015
Rachel Levy at the White House to perform in a Thanksgiving television special
Courtesy of Rachel Levy

Just before Thanksgiving, Rachel Levy, a 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey who attended Berklee’s Five-Week Summer Performance Program this year, shared a stage at the White House with acclaimed actress Kristin Chenoweth for the television special “Broadway at the White House.”

Facing Chenoweth, Levy sang, “It well may be / That we will never meet again / In this lifetime / So let me say before we part / So much of me / Is made of what I learned from you.” Though these were lyrics from “For Good” from the hit musical Wicked—for which Chenoweth was nominated for a Tony—Levy said the words also perfectly captured what it was like being on the stage with one of her idols.

“It was about being in the moment and actually saying what I was feeling,” said Levy, a self-described Wicked fanatic. Being with Chenoweth, she said, made her feel that anything was possible if she worked for it.

Of course, it’s not just hard work that makes one a star; it’s also a good deal of talent, and Levy’s has not gone unnoticed. She was one of 40 students nationwide chosen to be in the special. Show producers had heard her sing at her community theater in Morristown, New Jersey, and asked her and a few others in the group to come to the White House.

After Levy’s duet with Chenoweth, First Lady Michelle Obama gave the teenager a standing ovation. At the same time, Levy said, Chenoweth whispered in her ear that she’d see her on Broadway.

“To hear from somebody you look up to that they believe in you and they think you can get there, it’s just really reassuring,” Levy said.

Though Levy didn’t get the chance to meet the First Lady face to face (nor the president, who was in Turkey at the time), she was inspired by her opening remarks on the importance of supporting the arts. “It’s nice to know that the people above actually support what you want to do with your life,” she said.

Watch Levy's performance at the White House here: 

Kristin Chenoweth and Rachel Levy sing "For Good" at Broadway at the White House

The Road to Berklee

Levy’s singing career began when she was 6 and the owner of a new karaoke machine her parents gave her for her birthday. She says she sang along to Hilary Duff all the time, and that same year she was noticed at her elementary school by the producers of People Garden, an off-Broadway show. They offered her the part that she would have for the next two years. Around this time, she also got a private voice teacher and started the vocal lessons she continues today.

After her People Garden days ended, Levy spent the next several years honing her chops at the Morristown Performing Arts Center. Then she decided to shift her training into the next gear and come to Berklee’s Five-Week Summer Program between her sophomore and junior years.

It was this past summer, at Berklee, that Levy calls the best of her life. “I just love everything about the Berklee atmosphere. I love the people; I love how every class didn’t feel like I had to get up to go to class in the morning; [instead] I felt excited that I was going to learn music.”

She called her summer voice teacher, Stan Dunn, magical. “Without him, I don’t know where my voice would be. He just takes a voice and is able to craft it into the instrument you really have.”

And it was here that she found her community of kindred souls. At Berklee, she said, everyone had a passion similar to hers. “I made the best friends there. I still talk to them every single day,” she said. She's hoping to come back to Berklee next summer and possibly attend college here. 

Before coming to Berklee, she said, it would take her all day to figure out a piece of sheet music. After she left the program, she could look at a piece and have it figured out within the hour. She also left Boston with a more attuned ear, able to pick out notes in a song so she could find her own. “I feel so much more confident,” she said.

Her comfort on stage was in high definition at the White House. During her performance, she didn’t feel nervous so much as if she were in a dream, she said.

“I just tried not to think about it when it was happening. I thought, ‘I’m going to pretend it’s like any other performance I’ve done. And when I go home later tonight and I can’t sleep at night, I’ll think about it.’”