Bobbi Baitey wanted to perform Christina Aguilera’s Hurt at Morristown Onstage last year.
But it hurt too much.
“I thought it was too close to my friend’s death to sing it, and I would get too emotional on stage. But thankfully, I’m far enough away from it that I can sing it without breaking down,” said the Morristown High School senior, who returns to the talent contest as one of 14 finalists on March 10, 2021.
She is dedicating the bittersweet song to Jahahd Payne, a County College of Morris student from Randolph who was fatally shot in Newark, while driving home from a party in 2019.
Baitey’s friendship with Payne blossomed at Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown.
“He was in the choir with us. He did youth worship with us. He was an amazing dancer,” Baitey said.
Despite the emotional risk, she would like to present her tribute before 1,300 people in the Mayo Performing Arts Center, where her 2020 rendition of Beyonce’s Listen won her a national anthem gig at a New York Jets game.
But the pandemic has turned Morristown Onstage into an all-virtual affair. Borrowing camera gear from her schoolteacher mom, Baitey recorded her competition video in the basement of their Morris Plains home.
“I just tried to make the best of a bad situation. I knew that it was going to be virtual when I signed up for it, so I was okay with that,” she said. “Anything is better than nothing.”
Morristown Onstage has raised more than $1 million for the Morris School District over the show’s first 13 years. The contest is open to amateur performers who live, work or attend schools in Morristown, Morris Township or Morris Plains, and to graduates of Morristown High School.
Fifty-five acts submitted audition videos. Finalists will vie for cash prizes, awarded by a panel of art industry pros and by popular vote, at next week’s webcast.
If she takes home the $1,000 prize, Baitey plans to use it for college. She aspires to a stage career. So far, so good.
Video: Morristown Onstage 2020 highlights include Bobbi Baitey
Before the pandemic, she performed at events with MPAC’s Performing Arts Company, and in Morristown High musicals.
She will appear this spring in an MHS video stage production, Maybe Baby It’s You. (The play’s director, Katie Adams, and musical director, David Gallagher, are competing in the adult division of Morristown Onstage.)
Video: Bobbi Baitey shares a pandemic ‘Message of Hope’ with MPAC’s Performing Arts Company, May 2020:
Baitey has made wise use of social distancing, spending time at home gleaning acting and dancing tips online, and extending her alto voice into soprano territory.
“I’ve been working on my vocal range a lot, so I can hit the notes a lot better. There aren’t a lot of tunes for altos in any Broadway shows, so I kind of have to sing higher if I want to get good roles,” said Baitey, a fan of Cynthia Erivo and Sutton Foster.
Although she didn’t win top honors last time at Morristown Onstage, Baitey considers it valuable experience. It was a chance to sing, “and there’s really not much better than that.”
Competitive by nature, she learned it’s okay if you don’t finish first.
“It taught me that I really am there for the music,” Baitey said, “and not for the money or winning or anything like that.”
This year, she’ll be there for a friend who could not be.
Are you looking down upon me?
Are you proud of who I am?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t do
To have just one more chance
To look into your eyes
And see you looking back
–Hurt, by Christina Aguilara, Linda Perry and Mark Ronson
Video: Bobbi Baitey solos on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Someday at Christmas,’ with MPAC’s Performing Arts Company, December 2019:
Video: Bobbi Baitey (2:42) in ensemble preview of Morristown High’s ill-fated 2020 production of ‘Into the Woods,’ which was canceled by the pandemic: