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Young Ambassadors, alumni get set to celebrate 40 years

PROVO — To celebrate its 40th anniversary, alumni and current members of BYU's Young Ambassadors are gearing up for a special production of "The New Music Makers" Feb. 11-13.

The show celebrates popular music and dance from the 1960s up to present day, and director Randy Boothe said the Young Ambassadors have been hard at work preparing for the show — both mentally and physically.

"People have been getting ready, alumni have been watching the choreography online and listening to the music on their iPods," Boothe said. "They're a little worried about fitting in the costumes. Do you know what happens to your body after 40 years?"

Body concerns aside, Boothe said the level of excitement about the showcase is "pretty high" for both past and present group members.

"This is a rare unique opportunity to be involved with alumni," said Todd Schwartzman, current president of the Young Ambassadors. "We are really proud of our past, we have some alumni who have gone on to have huge careers and carried on the legacy. We are honored to welcome them back and share a stage with them."

Boothe, who has been part of the Young Ambassadors since its inception in 1970, said he's had the opportunity see many of the returning BYU graduates succeed in the performance industry firsthand. Boothe became the group's director in 1977 after a brief stint working with Walt Disney Productions.

"I really did not anticipate that I would be doing what I do for a living," said Boothe, who has a master's degree in music education, "but then I began working in the Disney college intern program and it was a wonderful experience. I expected to work there forever."

Boothe said he enjoyed working with the performing groups at Walt Disney so much that when BYU offered him the opportunity to head the Young Ambassadors he jumped at the chance.

"I discovered I could do what I was doing at BYU and take it all over the world," Boothe said. "The world was coming to Disney, but I wanted to take these performers around the world, and BYU was eager to send us everywhere."

Boothe said along with being director of the Young Ambassadors, he has spent a lot of time developing the music dance theater major.

"At the time BYU didn't have a program to combine singing, acting and dancing," Boothe said. "So we really developed the major into what it is now."

As the program developed, Boothe said BYU has seen its alumni working in some of the most coveted performance fields.

"We have some working on Broadway," Boothe said. "We've got kids all over the country performing up a storm."

One of those alumni, Sharlene Wells Hawkes, said she has been devoting time every day to getting ready for the upcoming performance.

"I've been practicing my song," Hawkes said. "I don't have a star voice, but I'm good at blending, so I will be performing doing a little showcase. I've just been trying every day to sit down and sing."

Hawkes, who is a former Miss America, said she credits the group for giving her essential communication skills and the courage to perform in front of large audiences.

"Young Ambassadors was a huge turning point for me," Hawkes said. "I never really felt comfortable on stage. I never enjoyed it, I just found myself there. I was always very nervous, it wasn't something I found comfortable."

Hawkes said the only reason she tried out for Young Ambassadors in 1983 was because of a dare from her roommate. The experience, Hawkes said, turned out to be life changing

"It was literally right after that year that I was in Miss Utah and then won Miss America," Hawkes said. "Had I not been in Young Ambassadors I wouldn't have even been in top 10."

Hawkes said one of the biggest reasons the Young Ambassadors program is so iconic is because it reaches out to audiences around the world.

"The stuff (Boothe) taught us wasn't just performing, it was a Ph.D. in communication," Hawkes said. "You have to reach each person in the audience, each with different needs. What really helped me was taking it off my shoulders and focusing on the audience. It was a huge educational experience."

Part of reaching out to audiences, Boothe said, is changing widespread misconceptions about America.

"I caught the bug as an 18-year-old in Osaka, Japan, with the group. There at Expo '70 I was interacting with people from so many different nations and realized the world is really so small," Boothe said.

"We all have the same hopes and dreams and it's easy to be misunderstood. Media doesn't always project the best image of Americans and some people never get to see the good."

Boothe said while on tour, students in the Young Ambassadors are involved in daily workshops at various schools and perform regularly for people who can't come to the performances at night.

"This is a way of building bridges and breaking barriers," Boothe said.

"From an educational standpoint it really opens their eyes to the big, wide wonderful world out there. Educationally, we are really committed to giving our students the experience of the world being our stage."

Through the program, Boothe said the message of camaraderie is not just shared with audiences, it is felt within the company.

"Working with these young people is such a family experience," Boothe said. "They are so committed. Friendship is their message and you feel it as they extend that message, but you also feel it in the group."

Although Young Ambassadors serves as a platform for close relationships and worldwide service, Boothe said the job isn't without challenges.

"The biggest challenge is that there are too many talented students and it's hard to be the guy that has to make the decision about who makes it in," Boothe said. "Everybody has to re-audition every year, but we only have 20 positions and a 10-piece band. To have between 220 and 280 people auditioning and to choose only 10 is hard."

The group has performed in 56 foreign countries and is currently preparing for a tour in South Africa within the next year called "Harmony: The Music of Life."

"It's a comedic look at the roller coaster of life," Boothe said. "From birth to growing old and everything in between. We have new original music as well as the best of Broadway and popular music."

For now, Boothe said the Young Ambassadors are anticipating enjoying each other's talents in the upcoming show.

"We've got 'em coming from New York, Nashville, Chicago, lots of places to dance and sing for each other," he said. "It will be really delightful to sit back and enjoy seeing your friends — they've still got it. They've gotten better with age."

If you go…

What: "The New Music Makers," BYU Young Ambassadors' 40th anniversary concert

When: Feb. 11-13, 7:30 p.m.; also Feb. 13, 2 p.m.

Where: de Jong Concert Hall, BYU, Provo

Cost: $11, $10 or $8 with a BYU or student ID

Phone: 801-422-4322