Mount St. Mary Academy students win national songwriting challenge 

LITTLE ROCK — Maya Johnson and Isabella Nguyen have been selected as winners of the 2023-2024 Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge, a joint initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT). Maya and Isabella will each receive a $2,500 scholarship provided by the National Music Publishers’ Association S.O.N.G.S. Foundation and a trip to New York, where their original song, “Live Before Life’s Gone,” will be performed in full orchestration at a special concert on Broadway.

Maya Johnson (left) and Isabella Nguyen

Both students are rising seniors at Mount St. Mary Academy where they are active in the theatre arts and forensics programs and members of the International Thespian Society. They also participate in the school’s award-winning choral ensemble, the Concert Belles, and have each been selected to the Arkansas Choral Directors Association All-State Choir multiple times.

“When we submitted our song back in December, we never thought it possible that we could win,” Maya and Isabella said in a joint statement about their win. “We entered the competition to receive feedback and to participate in workshops with successful songwriters like Rob Rokicki and Joey Contreras with the hope that we would get advice on how to improve our writing for the rest of our original musical, Less Than Perfect

“When we got the call that ‘Live Before Life’s Gone’ was selected as one of seven winning songs out of over 90 that were submitted, we were absolutely shocked—and still are. We can’t wait for Winners Weekend and to work alongside professional composers, musicians and performers to bring our song to life and make connections that will hopefully become steppingstones to bigger things in the future.”

Maya and Isabella travelled to NYC June 15-17, with the six other winning songwriters, to learn about process, technique and production while working with mentors and music directors to hone their orchestrations. The fully orchestrated and produced compositions were performed by top-tier Broadway talent at a concert on June 17. This one-time event will be available to watch live and on-demand at and In addition, all of the winning songs will be compiled into a songbook by Concord Theatricals, one of the world’s largest theatrical licensing and music publishing firms, and released at a future date. 

“Developing musical theatre writers is at the heart of our mission, and working with these amazing high school students is a natural extension of who we are and what we do,” NAMT Executive Director Betsy King Militello said. “We have loved providing educational opportunities to all the wonderful applicants and can’t wait to spend the weekend immersed in musical theatre with the winners.” 

The Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge is a prestigious program that provides high school students across the country with an unparalleled opportunity to develop and showcase their original musical compositions, which could become part of a full-scale musical theater production. Maya and Isabella’s piece, “Live Before Life’s Gone,” was one of seven winning songs chosen by a panel of leaders in the musical theater field out of 95 submissions from 113 students across 30 states. A demo of it and the other winning songs can be heard at Announcing the Student Winners of the 2023-2024 Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge! | NAMT