NEW YORK CITY: Many of us remember wearing oversized costumes, slathering ourselves in spirit gum, and taking on roles some 40 years our senior—all in good fun for the annual high school musical. These memories of backstage bonding, pre-show rituals, and tech rehearsals weren’t just for those looking for an alternative to school sports; it was also for the triple-threat performers with their eyes on the cast list—and on Broadway.
For participants in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards in honor of theatre owner and founder James L. Nederlander, the dream is real, and it came true for 52 young performers at the last night’s competition and ceremony at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. The awards recognize outstanding leading performers in high schools from across the nation.
“This is the first year the Broadway League has been involved officially with the Jimmys,” said league president Charlotte St. Martin. “We have been supporting it for the six previous years, but we just took it over. We are so thrilled, because our members all over the country wanted us to be involved—they want to make it bigger and better, with more students involved. This is the future of American theatre.”
After vying in competitions around the nation, a troupe of 52 got a weeklong theatrical boot camp in New York City with director Van Kaplan, choreographer Kiesha Lalama, and music director Michael Moricz. In just five days, the team put together a spectacular revue of songs and prepared solos to compete for Best Actor and Best Actress awards.
This year, two-time Tony winner Michael Cerveris hosted the evening, which featured vignettes of songs from the performances that brought each of the competitors from their high school auditoriums to the Minskoff for their Broadway debut. The opening number began with a medley of songs, which included a play on words from two Fun Home songs, “Changing my Major to Joan” and “Ring of Keys”: “I’m changing my major to Broadway to sing songs with changing keys.”
Cerveris stepped onstage with a wig—not the one he dons as Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home, but a long-haired one, as a humorous homage to Sutton Foster, the previously announced host who had to drop out due to laryngitis. So Cerveris canceled a trip to visit his father, left the airport, and headed back to prep for the Jimmy Awards at the last minute—something he felt was important, especially given his own high school theatre experiences. He recalled playing the role of Angelo the goldsmith in The Comedy of Errors in high school: “I was by no means the best actor there, but I at least understood how theatre worked. And standing on this bare stage with this ghost light and the darkness all around me, I felt myself at home in a way I hadn’t felt anywhere in months.”
Onstage in the 1,597-seat theatre, the 52 contenders looked right at home, too. The group medleys, performed in costume, began—and the Minskoff was filled with gaggles of Fredericks from Young Frankenstein, Seymours from Little Shop of Horrors, Fionas from Shrek, and countless Mary Poppins, in songs spanning many genres and decades of the American theatre.
Cerveris aptly nicknamed the Jimmy Awards the Olympics of High School Musical Theatre; the clapping and cheering during each performance made it feel like an intense sporting event as each performer presented a new skill set in the songs.
The judges with the difficult task of eliminating contestants included Kent Gash (associate arts professor and founding director of the New Studio on Broadway); Rachel Hoffman, C.S.A. (Telsey + Company); Alecia Parker (executive producer of National Artists Management Company); Tara Rubin, C.S.A. (Tara Rubin Casting); Nick Scandalios (executive vice president of the Nederlander Organization); Thomas Schumacher (president of Disney Theatrical Group); and Bernie Telsey, C.S.A. (Telsey + Company).
After an intermission, six finalists—three actors and three actresses—were selected to perform their solo songs. Each came having won, and representing, awards shows in their regions: Alec Michael Ryan from the Tommy Tune Awards; Drayton Maclean Mayers from the Orpheum High School Musical Theatre Awards; Andrew Skillman from the M.A.C.Y. Awards; Morgan Higgins from the M.A.C.Y. Awards; Marla Louissaint from the Gershwin Awards and Marnie Quick from the Gene Kelly Awards.
Special awards were given to Madeline Mathias from Ovation Awards for Best Performance in an Ensemble; Rayven Burdette of the Tommy Tune Awards received an award for Most Improved; and Drayton Maclean Mayers from the Orpheum High School Musical Theatre Awards won the Spirit of the Jimmy Awards. Kamari A. Saxon from Broadway Star of the Future Awards was selected to attend the Carnegie Mellon University pre-college drama program on full scholarship.
The six finalists ascended from beneath the Minskoff stage for a grand entrance to perform their solos.
As the judges deliberated, St. Martin of the Broadway League presented the recipients of the Apple Awards, given to arts educators who incorporate Broadway into their curriculum. Recipients included Cristina Gutierrez-Brewster, program manager at Academy Prep Center of Tampa, Fla.; Rosa Rocha, president of the board of directors at Friends of Down Syndrome in Houston, Texas; and Bradley Wingate, arts academy specialist at Greenville County Schools in Greenville S.C.
Kaplan and James L. Nederlander, chairman of the Nederlander Organization, then announced the top winners. Anthony Skillman of Mission Viejo, Calif., received the award for Best Actor. Skillman first sang Tarzan in the medley and performed a song from Parade. New York City native Marla Louissaint was named Best Actress for her performance from Caroline, or Change and a solo song from Dreamgirls.
Skillman and Louissaint each received $10,000 checks for their education, and are now eligible to receive a four-year merit- and need-based scholarship to attend the New Studio on Broadway, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Drama, contingent upon acceptance into the program. They will also appear in a nationwide advertising shoot for Wyndham Rewards.
The four runner-ups received a $2,500 scholarship courtesy of the Barry and Fran Weissler Foundation.
To celebrate her big win, Louissaint said she can’t wait to “give everyone hugs, go home and sleep and go out to dinner to celebrate with my family.” Next on her plate is college: “I am going to Fordham University for engineering. I have an agent, so I have both outlets—I didn’t want to drop one to do the other.”
“When they called my name, I felt filled with so much joy, and I was just ecstatic and humbled,” said Skillman after the ceremony. “There were so many incredibly talented people—all of them have different skill sets, so to collectively build an ensemble together was just an incredible experience.” Skillman is headed to Texas State University to study theatre.
In an emotional closing performance, the 52 contestants gathered on a raked stage to perform together one last time. The group was joined by Robert Fairchild and Brandon Uranowitz from An American in Paris, in a medley that began with “S’ Wonderful” and ended with “New York, New York.” It was indeed one helluva night in one helluva town.