Recent Davidson Day School Grad Wins National Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge!

June 14, 2024 / Blog
By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

Luisa Paraguassu, a 2024 graduate of Davidson Day School, recently received some extraordinary news. She is one of eight winners from across the nation of the Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge, a competition for high school students, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Musical Theatre Alliance.


Her song, “Talk Pretty,” was selected from more than 100 submissions, coming from 34 different states. It will be performed in a special concert starring Broadway artists in New York City on Monday, June 17 at 7pm ET.

Viewers can tune in live at or to catch the concert, which will include all of the winning songs.

As part of the experience, Paraguassu and the other winners will spend several days in New York to work with mentors and professional musicians, refining their songs and developing their songwriting skills. Each winning song has been professionally orchestrated and will later be published and available to the public.

“I just feel very grateful,” said Paraguassu, who received a $2,500 scholarship from NMPA S.O.N.G.S. (Supporting Our Next Generation of Songwriters) Foundation as part of the prize package. The Songwriting Challenge is also supported by Concord Theatricals and Disney Theatrical Productions.

The international roots behind her song

Paraguassu, who has a unique international background, spoke to Blumenthal Arts’ Blog via video call from Shanghai, China, after a full day of fun at Shanghai Disneyland. She was back for a few weeks visiting friends and family, in the city where she lived from age 10 - 16.

Most of the Brazilian-born musician’s early childhood, however, was spent in Iowa, where the family moved when Paraguassu was just a year and half old. And her last two years of high school were spent just outside Charlotte, in Davidson, NC.


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Those international and cross-cultural experiences are a key element of her award-winning song, too. Paraguassu, who is fluent or conversational in five languages, grew up speaking Portuguese at home. But she has often spent time with friends who are unable to speak their own family’s maternal language and observed the pain that is associated with it. Her song, with lyrics in English and Portuguese, focuses on the longing for connections with one’s family that transcend language.

“I know so many people that have had that experience,” she said. “… It can be really tumultuous and a little challenging for them because … there's so much shame that comes with that that is just so unnecessary.”

Making music

For Paraguassu, music has been another “language” that has long fascinated her. She’s always loved listening to songs and analyzing their lyrics. Growing up, she also enjoyed making up her own tunes, often improvised on the spot.

“I'd be like, ‘oh give me a word or, like, give me three words,’” and she’d incorporate them into a song.

“I really liked the improvisation kind of part of it and then I would just go back and … fix it if I wanted to continue with that song.”

When composing, she said the lyrics and music usually come to her simultaneously. Paraguassu plays piano, guitar and a little bit of drums. For her “Talk Pretty” submission, she accompanied herself on guitar. As part of the competition, she received feedback on a first version from a panel of experts, then revised and resubmitted her entry, incorporating their suggestions.

“Talk Pretty” is her first real venture into a musical theater piece, she said, although she considers it stylistically to be a non-traditional one. She has written and recorded other songs in the past. Her 2023 album “Sundial” (released under artist name Luisi) is available on Spotify.

Her music tastes are eclectic and that’s reflected in her own music too. Her interests range from folk and rap to alternative, as well as popular Brazilian music including styles like samba and bossa nova. Her parents have played a major role in her musical development, she said. They intentionally introduced Paraguassu and her older brother to a variety of American and British groups early on to help them get more comfortable with English. In recent years, they’ve prioritized sharing lots of Brazilian music with her.

Navigating a “weird relationship” with musical theater

Pargauassu said she’s always had a “weird relationship” with musical theater. On the one hand, she grew up enamored by it, thinking it was “the coolest thing ever.” On the other, she was petrified by the idea of performing in front of people.

“I was very, very, very shy,” she said. In 8th grade, she was so quiet in her theater class that the teacher actually made her apologize to the rest of the class for it.

After that, she was hurt and resentful

“I was, like, ‘I hate theater… I'm never doing this again,” she said.

But when that teacher left the school, she decided to give it another try. In 10th grade she got cast in a play and enjoyed the experience. Then, she went out for the school musical and landed the lead role of Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes.” She never got to perform the role, though, because a second wave of Covid-19 in 2022 closed down everything in Shanghai. The city went into lockdown mode.

And if life wasn’t already topsy-turvy enough with months of Covid-19 restrictions and obligatory isolation, her family abruptly decided to move to North Carolina right before her junior year of high school to be closer to her brother, a film student at UNC School of the Arts, and other extended family members. She only had about two weeks to prepare before relocating to Mooresville.

At Davidson Day School, musical theater took on a new positive spin: it became the key to getting acclimated and meeting people.

“Being the new kid in 11th grade is not fun,” she said, so musical theater helped her adjust.

Paraguassu starred as Cady Heron, the quintessential new girl (also with an international background!) in “Mean Girls.” The show was nominated for Best Musical at the 2023 Blumey Awards.


(Luisa Paraguassu performing a selection from Mean Girls at the 2023 Blumey Awards ceremony at Belk Theater)

“We got to perform at the Blumenthal,” Paraguassu said. “That was awesome … one of the coolest experiences I've ever had.”

And somewhat terrifying, she added, because it was in front of so many people.

As she’s gained experience, she’s gotten better at dealing with stage fright. She now appreciates the adrenaline boost that comes with performing.  


(Luisa Paraguassu performing in her school's production of Mean Girls as Cady Heron)

“A little bit of fear is healthy,” said Paraguassu, who was a finalist for Best Supporting Actress at the 2024 Blumey Awards for the role of Portia in “Something Rotten.”

Looking forward to New York and Beyond

Paraguassu is excited about her upcoming adventure in New York and the five days she’ll spend with music professionals, including mentors and orchestrators, and the co-winners of the Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge.

“I’m definitely most looking forward to meeting everyone else in person!” she told Blumenthal’s Blog.

“I’m especially looking forward to meeting the other winners though since I think it will be such a unique experience to meet other people that have shared passions with me and we are already planning to try to write a song all together so I hope that comes into fruition.”

At the end of the summer, she’ll head to UNC Chapel Hill to start college. She’s not entirely sure what major she will pursue but is leaning toward a career in immigration law. She has a passion for humanitarian efforts and refugee plight alleviation, she said.

As for songwriting, that’s something she will continue to explore. She’s considering a minor in music or musical theater.

“That's always going to be a huge part of my life,” she said, “whether I choose to pursue it academically or not…  it's always going to be sort of there.”