Originally published in print and online by Washington Parent in October 2015.
Singing is a compulsion for 9-year-old Jake Miller. His parents insist he was singing before he could even talk. This November, Jake’s enduring talents will be on full display as he performs in the title role of Oliver! the musical at Arena Stage in southwest Washington, D.C.
With a cast packed full of Broadway veterans, Jake, of Warrenton, VA, stands out as the show’s young star. His path to stardom started at home, as his family members found opportunities for him to pursue his passions, despite their limited experience in the world of theatre.
“Having not much experience in this, we followed his lead,” said Jim Miller, Jake’s dad. “We went to a few local auditions that were good learning experiences, but didn’t pan out. Jake’s pretty competitive, so that competitive nature drove him to continue down this road.”
The Millers often videotaped Jake’s singing to show to family and friends, but eventually they looked to local theatre auditions to give him a new experience.
“I didn’t get a part,” Jake said of his initial auditions at a community theatre. “But that didn’t make me stop, so I just kept doing it and doing it.”
In December 2014, he landed his first major role as Tiny Tim in Scrooge No More at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA. This summer, he performed “America the Beautiful” in front of 24,000 spectators at center court before the evening match of the U.S. Open. Jake’s parents noted that they were initially wary of compliments from industry professionals, since they were so accustomed to hearing his voice at all hours of the day.
“It’s hard when you don’t have any singing experience and when you don’t know if people are just being nice,” said Jennifer Miller, Jake’s mom.
Despite their lack of experience in the arts, Jake’s success has demonstrated his genuine talents, and Jim added that he and Jennifer plan to continue to follow Jake’s lead and encourage his passions. For Jake, opportunities like his role in Oliver! are about more than just showcasing his own skills – it’s about the full experience of being part of a production.
“My favorite parts of performing are meeting new people, getting new friends and being out there singing in front of all those people,” Jake said.
Although he was quick to grumble about speedy costume changes and the difficulty of memorizing an entire binder of lines, the excitement he gets from being in front of a crowd overshadows everything else.
“It’s going to be so cool to be in front of all those people,” Jake said. “Theatre is important for me to make people happy. I want people to be happy when I sing.”
In his own off-stage live, Jake is a fourth grade student, tennis player and honors choir singer, which can make for a tricky balancing act. Rehearsals posed somewhat of a logistical challenge for his family who said they divided responsibilities among family members to ensure Jake would always be at rehearsals on time. But although Jake is the star of the show, his parents noted that he cannot always be the star of their lives.
“We do have other children and we do have lives outside of Jake. Jake isn’t our sole focus,” said Jennifer. Jake is the youngest of his siblings, Jordyn, 21, and Jackson, 12.
Of course, school work and other extra curricular responsibilities also remained a primary focus for Jake and his family.
“Trying to balance out other aspects of life is a difficult tightrope to walk at times, because while [performing] plays a huge role, there are other things we need to make sure we stay focused on,” said Jim. “School is really key for us.”
Jennifer added that Arena Stage provided a “nurturing environment” for Jake, which eased her concerns about fitting everyday activities – like homework and dinner – into rehearsal times.
In many ways, performing on this scale is its own learning experience. The Miller family emphasized that although Jake is missing some class time, he is gaining a plethora of life experiences.
“Not only is he performing, he’s learning to speak in front of crowds, he’s learning to handle himself in front of adults, he’s learning confidence by standing on a stage, and he’s learning self control and what he can and can’t do in a very grown up world,” said Jennifer.
Jake plans for a lifetime of performing and envisions himself as a professional vocalist. Jake said he hopes to be a singer – or a professional basketball player if something were to happen to his vocal cords.
Oliver runs from October 30 to January 3 at Arena Stage, and tickets can be purchased online at arenastage.org.