“They are coming for your jobs,” joked Tony winner Ben Platt to uproarious laughter from a house of Broadway professionals. And he wasn’t lying. Many of us spent our high school days cramming for calculus tests, endlessly writing and revising college essays, and repeating to ourselves “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.” But this past Monday, we saw 86 driven high school students who had also spent time preparing for their Broadway debut.
On Monday, June 24 the Minskoff Theatre, where The Lion King reigns, was home to the 11th Annual National High School Musical Theatre Awards or “Jimmy” Awards, named for James M. Nederlander. Produced by the Broadway League Foundation and Pittsburgh CLO, the Jimmy Awards honor exceptional acting, vocal, and dance talent among high school students. Each year 100,000 teenagers across the country participate in the program, and those receiving top honors in their region are invited to a nine-day workshop at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where they’re coached by industry professionals to prep for a night of performances on a Broadway stage.
Dear Evan Hansen star Platt played host for the second time, and seemed just as blown away by the young talent as everyone else in the room. He opened by reflecting upon his own experience as a young actor in a high school production of Pippin opposite Beanie Feldstein. “If you don’t know who she is, leave!” he joked.
The audience got to experience the startling maturity of these 17- and 18-year-old actors, performing as characters, some twice their age, in costume. A Beast, an Aida, a Gomez Addams, and “two Drowsy Chaperones for the price of one,” as Platt called them, were among the roles portrayed. The students also got the chance to step into the shoes of Broadway legends in a series of medleys from such classics as A Chorus Line and The Producers, as well as selections from the current season, including The Prom, Hadestown, Beetlejuice, and Be More Chill. The medleys were craftily directed by Van Kaplan, music-directed and arranged by Michael Moricz, and choreographed by Kiesha Lalama.
“I feel like when you’re creating a big musical and it’s three hours long, you don’t really get to see the big picture,” said Lalama, a veteran of film, television, and stage. “But this process allows you the intimacy of watching each kid having their own breakthrough. Watching them gain confidence is something that is irreplaceable. You see them on a daily basis evolve, and that to me is the most rewarding thing that you could ever experience as an artist, as an educator, and as a mother of two.”
In celebration of Wicked’s 15th anniversary on Broadway, the rising stars also performed a tribute to the show, arranged by Ben Cohn and choreographed by Wayne Cilento, in front of Stephen Schwartz himself.
Schwartz was one of eight judges tasked with winnowing down the talent pool to eight finalists during intermission. These finalists then competed with solos for the chance to be awarded Best Actor and Actress, along with $25,000 scholarships each. The panel of judges included Nathan Flower (NYU Tisch), Alecia Parker (executive producer of National Artists Management Company), Tara Rubin (Tara Rubin Casting), Montego Glover (actress in Memphis and Hamilton), Marc Platt (producer and Ben Platt’s father), Thomas Schumacher (president of Disney Theatrical Group), Bernie Telsey (Telsey and Co.), and composer Schwartz.
The eight finalists selected were Casey Likes from the ASU Gammage High School Musical Theatre Awards, Colin Miller from the Enchantment Awards, Ethan Kelso from the Utah High School Musical Theatre Awards, Christian Spaay from the Jerry Awards, Marisa Moenho from the Lucie Arnaz Awards, Ekele Ukegbu from the Roger Rees Awards, Lexie Love from the 5th Avenue Theatre Awards, and Jessi Kirtley from the Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards.
A variety of other awards were also bestowed, including Best Dancer to Anna Gasset, the Rising Star Award to Jacob Simon, Best Performance in an Ensemble award to Senna Prasatthong-osoth, and the Spirit of the Jimmys award to Adam Kral.
“I have to say, when I first got the award I started crying,” said Kral, a junior from Houston, Texas, after the show. “It’s an award that my peers voted for and I’m so humbled by the fact that so many of them decided that I was a spirit of this whole thing.” Aside from being a devoted performer, Adam also shares a love of STEM and hopes to study musical theatre and biomedical engineering in college.
A handful of Jimmy Awards participants had never visited New York before, and three of the teens had never even been on a plane before. Though they came from a variety of backgrounds, the nominees shared a hunger to learn, an inclusive mindset, and an eloquence in speaking that many attributed to their theatrical training.
Elyse Bell, a junior from La Mirada, Calif., spoke about how playing a driven and headstrong female role in high school contributed to her own personal growth. “I played Jo March and it was life-changing,” said Bell of the Little Women lead. “Before her I was always playing characters who were spastic and crazy, and you know, those are wonderful and so much fun, but it was so rewarding to play a character who was intellectual and ahead of her time. It gave me the freedom to speak my mind, and that is something that I carry with me from the character. Having that experience makes you understand the power of theatre.”
To recognize the educators who helped motivate these young people, Wells Fargo presented the Inspiring Teacher awards to Matthew Hinson from Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, N.C., and Tasha Partee from Lawrence Woodmere Academy in Woodmere, N.Y.
The top winners were announced by Van Kaplan and James L. Nederlander, curent chairman of the Nederlander Organization. Ethan Kelso of Logan, Utah, took Best Actor after performing in the Wicked medley and then singing “Wondering” from The Bridges of Madison County. Ekele Ukegbu from Elmont, N.Y., then took home Best Actress, having performed as Aida, then singing “I Am Here” from The Color Purple and receiving a full standing ovation. Even Ben Platt was taken aback by her mic-dropping strut off the stage.
“The amount of euphoria I felt was insane,” said Kelso, reflecting on his state of mind when they called his name after the ceremony. “New York is such an energetic place, and this is my second time being here. My first time was the week before the Jimmys, and I just wanna be here, where performance is at its best.”
In addition to $25,000 scholarships, the two also are eligible for scholarships to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, contingent upon acceptance to the program. The other finalists each received $5,000 scholarships toward their future education.
In a moving closing medley of “Unruly Heart” from The Prom and “Wait For Me” from Hadestown, the new Broadway stars sang us home from a raked stage. All of their lives had been undeniably changed “for good.”
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!