From a life-threatening nightmare to a dream come true, one N.B. teen's whirlwind year

·8 min read
Charlotte Harriman at age six, as Molly in the Saint John Theatre Company production of Annie.  (Brian Goodwin photo - image credit)
Charlotte Harriman at age six, as Molly in the Saint John Theatre Company production of Annie. (Brian Goodwin photo - image credit)

As a child, her nickname was "Singing Charlotte." But it could just as easily have been "Dancing Charlotte" or "Broadway Charlotte."

Or, after the life-threatening ordeal she endured recently, "Charlotte the Lionhearted."

Charlotte Harriman's passion for stage performance started early.

"Since infancy, probably," the Rothesay teen says with a laugh.

At age four, she started taking voice and theatre lessons.

At age six, she played Molly in the Saint John Theatre Company's production of Annie.

Later that year, her parents took her to Broadway to see the Annie Revival, and that was that.

Charlotte officially had the theatre bug.

A few weeks ago, Charlotte learned that she was one of 130 people from eight countries, and the only Atlantic Canadian, accepted to an intensive theatre workshop program headed by one of her longtime idols, Tony Award-winning actor Kristin Chenoweth.

It was a glorious high point, made even more glorious by the fact that, just months earlier, it would have been unthinkable.

Charlotte Harriman says she has been singing 'since infancy, probably,' which would mean that by the time this photo of her at around age five was taken, she was already a seasoned pro.
Charlotte Harriman says she has been singing 'since infancy, probably,' which would mean that by the time this photo of her at around age five was taken, she was already a seasoned pro.(Submitted by Kylie Harriman)

'We thought it was muscle pain'

Until last summer, Charlotte's typical week was a jam-packed blur of school, dance classes, voice lessons and acting classes.

She dreamed of a career on Broadway, and her entire life was structured around moving her toward that goal.

Then one day, just as summer was beginning, Charlotte started noticing a nagging soreness in her neck.

"It wasn't that severe, we just thought it was muscle pain," she said.

Her family doctor suspected a pinched nerve and prescribed medication and physiotherapy.

But after three weeks with no improvement, the physiotherapist suggested that Charlotte go back to her doctor for further tests.

I literally felt like I could not move. It was very, very scary. - Charlotte Harriman

Her mom, Kylie Harriman, was growing increasingly concerned and made an appointment with her doctor right away.

They never made it to that appointment.

Later that same night, Charlotte woke up screaming in pain.

"I literally felt like I could not move," she said. "It was very, very scary."

She was rushed to the Saint John Regional Hospital, where she was examined and X-rayed.

As soon as the X-ray results came back, even before she had seen them, Charlotte's mother knew something was very wrong.

"All of a sudden, the activity in her hospital room went off the charts," she said.

"They rushed in with a neck brace, they had specialists coming in, she was taken for CT scans, MRIs … everything started moving very, very quickly."

The shocking X-ray results

To the Harrimans' astonishment, the X-rays revealed that Charlotte had a broken neck.

"We couldn't believe it," Harriman said. "We were like, 'but nothing's happened.' "

They couldn't think of a single thing that might have caused it.

Later, the CT scans revealed a bone tumour that had caused her third and fourth vertebrae to deteriorate to the point that her neck broke.

She needed immediate surgery to remove the two vertebrae and replace them with a titanium plate, pins and screws.

Without the surgery, her life was at risk: a bump, a shove, a fall — any of those could kill her, the doctor said.

The surgery was not without risks of its own.

"One of the first things the neurosurgeon said was that her voice could be permanently impacted due to the close proximity to her voicebox," Harriman said.

That's what frightened Charlotte the most.

But she knew there was no point in panicking and instead focused on mentally preparing herself.

"Once I found out I was getting surgery, I was like 'OK, it's happening. Let's go.' "

As the anesthesiologist prepared to put her to sleep, he suggested she count down from 10.

Charlotte had her own ideas.

"I told him I was just going to sing a song in my head," she said. "It was Another Terrible Day from The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical."

Charlotte, centre, in a production of Jungle Book.
Charlotte, centre, in a production of Jungle Book.(Submitted by Kylie Harriman)

Seven hours of surgery, seven months of recovery

While Charlotte underwent 7¼ hours of surgery, Harriman and her husband, Jeff, counted the agonizing minutes.

Hospital staff made a point of giving them regular updates, which Harriman said was the difference between being able to hang on and breaking down.

"The staff were amazing," she said. "I will never forget the anesthesiologist coming out to see us part-way through the surgery to let us know that things were going well and to tell us how brave Charlotte was being."

In the end, the surgery was a success and after one week, Charlotte was sent home to convalesce.

Seven months of arduous recovery followed, with neck braces and restrictions on movement and limits on how much weight she could lift. She couldn't carry her own school bag and missed the first month of school.

It was difficult, her mom said, but Charlotte "took things in stride, as usual."

"It wasn't that bad," Charlotte said. "I watched a lot of Glee and a lot of Big Bang Theory. It was calm."

At last, at her seven-month checkup appointment, she was given the all-clear to return to dance.

That was exhilarating news.

But there was even more exhilarating news to come.

Charlotte Harriman, centre, in School of Rock.
Charlotte Harriman, centre, in School of Rock.(Scott Munn photo)

All roads lead to Kristin Chenoweth

In the early days of her growing obsession with theatre, Charlotte had stumbled across the soundtrack to Wicked, the Broadway musical based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

That's when she discovered Tony Award-winning actor, singer and dancer Kristin Chenoweth, who played the role of Glinda, the Good Witch.

Charlotte was bowled over by Chenoweth's range of talents, her voice, her comedic timing, her acting ability, and she soaked up her performances in everything from the Descendants musical fantasy movies to Glee.

She also started following Chenoweth on social media.

Kristin Chenoweth on the red carpet for the 85th annual Academy Awards in 2013.
Kristin Chenoweth on the red carpet for the 85th annual Academy Awards in 2013. ((Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty))

In March, within days of being given the OK to return to dancing, she saw a post on Chenoweth's Twitter account that made her heart skip a beat: Chenoweth had taken her intensive week-long Broadway Bootcamp program virtual for 2021, and was opening it to auditioners from around the world rather than just in the U.S.

Renowned among young theatre hopefuls, the Broadway Bootcamp program is a marathon session of workshops, music sessions, dance classes, rehearsals, stagings, nightly events and activities, all overseen by industry coaches and award-winning stars, including Chenoweth.

Charlotte was galvanized.

"I immediately ran up to the living room to my mom and said, 'I'm auditioning for this.' "

The auditions are rigorous: applicants must submit two contrasting performances and a performance resumé, and complete an in-depth questionnaire on why they want to attend the camp and what they love about performing.

Charlotte chose to sing On My Way from Violet and What's Wrong with Me from Mean Girls. Then she submitted the entire package and tried not to think too much about it.

"It was a long shot," she said. "I was not expecting to get in at all."

But about three weeks later, she got an email.

"Congratulations! We have completed watching all of your video submissions and are happy to inform you that you are invited to participate as a camper June 6-13 for Kristin Chenoweth's Broadway Bootcamp 2021 Virtual Edition."

Charlotte Harriman on her 14th birthday last year. 'I could never have imagined any of this,' she said of the year that was to come.
Charlotte Harriman on her 14th birthday last year. 'I could never have imagined any of this,' she said of the year that was to come.(Submitted by Kylie Harriman)

All's well that ends well

"I was shocked," Charlotte said. "I danced around my living room, and I screamed throughout my entire house."

The email didn't contain any feedback on her audition, but clearly, Charlotte had impressed the right people.

Richard Jay-Alexander, a Broadway director and producer who also steps in as director for Chenoweth's bootcamp, confirmed that Charlotte had turned heads.

"The pieces she chose were great, they were good choices that fit her like a glove," Jay-Alexander said in an interview. "She was a 'yes' across the board, and that's very rare."

He also confirmed that Charlotte's dream of meeting her idol, albeit virtually, will absolutely come true.

"This program is very dear to Kristin's heart," he said. "This is a very hands-on project for her. She signs off on everything and she's there, every single day, talking to the kids, teaching classes, teaching workshops."

For Charlotte, it's a dream that can't come true soon enough, and an incredible bookend to a year she's still trying to process.

"I could never have imagined any of this. Any of it," Charlotte said. "It's all been an emotional roller-coaster, to say the least."