Behind the Scenes at the Jimmy Awards From Rehearsals to the Minskoff
It’s a Monday night at the Minskoff Theatre and I’m listening to 92 high school students sing Diana the Musical. To be fair, it’s not just Diana. There’s plenty of contemporary young adult musicals represented; Band Geeks, Spongebob Squarepants, Percy Jackson... Somehow, there’s also a gamut of Parade, Les Misérables, Next to Normal (who didn’t sing Next to Normal in high school?).
After years of watching compilations on YouTube, I have found myself at The Jimmy Awards. The National High School Musical Theatre Awards. The Tonys for High School Students. A program treated with all the pomp and circumstance of a professional awards show, the only difference being that the participants have a median age of 16. The nearly-three-hour program has more musical numbers than I could possibly name, more tributes and light choreography than the stage can practically bear. And the applause? More like a Harry Styles concert than a Monday evening at the theatre. And while I expected impressive performances and maybe a few tear-jerking triumphant numbers, I wasn’t prepared to find an odd little oasis of theatrical creativity. Performers taking risks, giving it their all, and cheering each other on in between each number. The Jimmy Awards are the theatre industry at its finest: a celebration of everything to come, without boundaries.
The NHSMTA’s began in 2009 and have since impacted high school students across the country. To compete in the hailed live event, high school musicals are adjudicated throughout the year, top stars compete at a local level, and two winners are sent to New York to learn entire production numbers in a few days and take classes with stars like LaChanze. Some participants return from the competition and head to school or a job with a great story to tell. Others book Broadway jobs with alarming speed and become Glass House-hold names. While this may sound like a recipe for chaos (and if you are from my Midwestern suburb, long-standing public school rivalries,) the result is more often a positive one. Students and alums comment that they form lasting friendships during the in-person Jimmy Awards week. And the professionals in charge? They see an impact on the theatre industry as a whole.
Mid-morning on the Friday before the Jimmys, I’ve just entered a rehearsal space at Juilliard. One on-site COVID test later, I’m ushered toward a wall of sound, both singing voices and sneaker squeaks. The students, all 92 of them, hit the final pose of a dance number and huddle together, holding big smiles on their faces for what will surely be 10, no, 20 seconds of thunderous applause.
As the heavy breathing amplifies, and the professionals in the room start to discuss next steps, the participants crumble to the ground in various phases of exhaustion. “What do you need right now?” Kiesha Lalama, who has choreographed the number, asks the group. “Water,” the group chimes back.
While the students may be between ages 15 and 18, their rehearsal is running as though this is a fully professional production. The participants are challenged with solos, fast-paced blocking changes, and even some acrobatic featured moments. No student is sidelined. In fact, the opening number medley finds a place for almost every student to shine. I asked Lalama what makes The Jimmy Awards such a notable program.
“For them to come in and learn all this material and go through this process and realize that they can achieve it and actually do it and probably do things they never thought were possible,” says Lalama. “It's that breakthrough, that moment where they realize they can achieve more than they ever thought was possible.”
Looking around, I’d believe that all these students had been friends for years. Instead, most of them met just days prior, yet have found something significant to bond them together. While that bond forges friendships for the participants, it is also what keeps industry professionals, like director and co-founder Van Kaplan, committed to the program.
“They are the future. To have them come here and realize that there’s so many other people that share the same love and know they’re not alone in their own community...I think that just makes us feel like what we're doing is meaningful…because look at these participants! They’re incredibly talented and they want it so bad. It’s invigorating.”
Later on that same day, I sit in on some of the group rehearsals, where mentors assist the students with their chosen solos. These solos will be performed for judges and, if selected as a finalist, in front of a sold-out Minskoff Theatre. I visit the classroom where Howard McGillin, of Broadway shows The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Phantom of the Opera, is working with a group of performers. This smaller setting is, for the most part, calmer than the big rehearsal space.
McGillin sits in a classroom desk and coaches the students one by one with a sensitivity that is frankly unexpected for a nationwide competition. His comments aim to encourage: “Use this moment to invite us in,” “We are in your corner,” and, when one singer forgets the lyrics to a verse, “that was terrific, let’s just try that part again.”
This entire time, the students have been wearing KN95 masks, even when singing alone. It’s an unexpected quirk for an 11 o’clock performance, but just another routine for these performers. I can’t help but think about the bigger picture. These are the kids who have missed out on school dances, summer camps, and even their school plays due to positive COVID-19 tests, and, not unlike many Broadway performers, have had to take on the emotional burden of “will the show go on if I get sick.” Through it all though, they’re here, and the persistence is notable in every money note of this rendition of “This is the Moment.”
“There's a joy in the room with this young generation of young artists. They’re so dynamic,” says Lalama during our conversation. “There’s so much hope because they are the change we want to see in the world, as cliche as it is…that’s all I see, is hope.”
While the professionals see hope and optimism, many of the students are just happy to have made it to this point. “I just auditioned for colleges and half of [them] were virtual. It is so weird coming back now and doing in-person auditions. I’m with all these amazing people doing theatre live? I haven’t done live theater like in the past two years, so it’s really fun to be back,” says Ashley Kay Woytal, representing the Sutton Foster Awards from Michigan.
In between the dance number workshop and the classroom session, I met with Ashley and her fellow participant Xander Marcel Benton, who exchanged stories of the socially-distanced Zoom theatre they tried out over the last few years. I asked about their dream roles and dreams, in the larger sense. (Remember how vast the world felt at 18?)
“I love the show Elegies,” said Woytal with a laugh. “I love William Finn so I would honestly sing anything in Elegies. ‘Infinite Joy’? I just—I love that show so much.”
Benton mentions his love of Jesus Christ Superstar and his goals to act on stage and in film. Beyond being a performer, he is also thinking about the personal side of things. “Starting a family, honestly. That might be kind of hard with this kind of job but I don't know, I feel like I'd be a good dad, maybe” he says.
Woytal and Benton chat a bit longer, discovering they actually have a close mutual friend, someone they both met doing theatre. The competition hasn’t even begun, in fact we’re still on that water break, yet these competitors are already thinking far past the winners circle. It’s in this moment it becomes very clear to me that the competition is not the most important thing at The Jimmy Awards: it’s these conversations.
Fast forward to Monday evening, and I’m at The Minskoff. Multiple full-camera crews are circling the building. One looks like a documentary, another heading up the livestream that will be watched by people worldwide. Clips from this evening’s broadcast will live forever on Youtube and serve as inspiration for upcoming theatre kids everywhere.
Prior to the live performance, I spoke to Bernie Telsey, casting director and Jimmy Awards judge, who commented on the optimism he sees at the awards. “[The Jimmys] really are that door opening, the window opening, for this next generation of theatre artists. It's so much bigger than whether they win the award or not. It's really about seeing these hundred kids [decide] that if they want to go into this business, they can. And this week gives them that confidence that they can. And it's so beautiful to witness.”
As the house lights go down, half of the participants run through the orchestra aisles, hitting their marks for a big reveal. They may be silent, but the crowd is electric, and shockingly so. Screams, cheers, and a few already on their feet with applause. We haven’t even started the show yet. What follows is a two-act, three-hour program led by host Kate Reinders, who jokes that hosting The Jimmy Awards is a dream come true for herself and her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series character (drama teacher Miss Jenn). Contestants have been randomly split into two major groups: those who will sing in the character medleys and those who will perform in the group medley moments. While only some will get to don their character costumes and reprise the role that got them here, all contestants have been equally considered during a private audition portion (the students spent most of the weekend doing this).
Tonight’s character medleys include a Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella scheming with an Into the Woods’ Cinderella, multiple Seymour’s crooning to an Audrey, and a shocking amount of Bright Star for the year 2022. The group pieces offer Sondheim numbers and a medley of music written by women (I had teared up a few times during the program so far, but I’d describe myself as “weeping” during a Come From Away/Legally Blonde/Little Women/Waitress/SIX mash-up moment).
Intermission hits and the crowd is buzzing. I’m crunching the numbers. Two Spongebob Squarepants numbers? One Anya from Anastasia dressed like Eponine and one actual Eponine…where did the “Christopher Columbus I’ll be astonishing” solos go? We open Act 2 with 16 semi-finalists, whittled down to eight solo-singing finalists, and very soon, two winners.
The most striking part of the solos was not the talent, though that couldn’t be ignored. It was the moment after each song finished, when the student looked up to the final row of the balcony, that was most moving. Some stared forward, struck with awe, and others looked around giddily at their first taste of Broadway applause. Through three different numbers from Parade (shocking) and a “The Music That Makes Me Dance” that removed the breath from the room, the soloists fought their way until the very end.
To my shock, awe, and delight, I learned that the two winners are invited to make a speech, nervously thanking parents, teachers, and “everyone who helped with everything.” Nicholas Barrón from Las Casas Foundation's Joci Awards and Kendall Becerra from The Broadway San Diego Awards will receive scholarship money alongside their newly found social media hype and the bragging rights that come with joining the ranks of Jimmy Awards winners of the last decade.
After the ceremony, audience members and the contestants themselves make their way to a party at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square. The stairs crowd as event attendants check COVID-19 test results, vaccination cards, and even require ticketed proof that you attended The Jimmys. The bar is (understandably) a cash bar and the playlist? Rent, Hamilton, the works. There are parents, siblings, assorted mentors and teachers. Discussions of summer camp, future colleges, friends from home. From the outside, it surely looks like a graduation party or a school dance. Inside, though, it’s the heart of the theatre industry—whether they know it yet or not.