From High School to Broadway: How Jimmy Awards Winners Become Theatre Stars

Interview   From High School to Broadway: How Jimmy Awards Winners Become Theatre Stars
 
Each year, dozens of high schoolers travel to New York to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards—better known as the Jimmy Awards.
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Andrew Barth Feldman and Reneé Rapp Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I’d like to ask our finalists to join us onstage.”

The lights dim. A triumphant orchestral swell pours from the pit. And then, they rise.

Eight teens, hand in hand, ascend to the stage on a rising platform as they become eye-level with the cheering audience at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. Two will be named Best Actor and Best Actress at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards—better known as the Jimmy Awards, named after the late producer and theatre owner James M. Nederlander.

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2019 Jimmy Awards Nominees Henry McGee

READ: See Who Won the 2019 Jimmy Awards

“It was this moment of, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It was so weird,” recalls Andrew Barth Feldman, who won Best Performance by an Actor in 2018. “All of a sudden, there was this huge Broadway house in front of our faces.” Since winning, Feldman has found a new home across the street at the Music Box Theatre, making his Broadway debut in the title role of Dear Evan Hansen at age 16.

Among the judges for the 2018 competition was casting director Tara Rubin; also in attendance was Dear Evan Hansen producer Stacey Mindich. An acceptance speech and a few emails later, Feldman was auditioning for his dream role.

This year, 86 young performers from a record 43 regions took the stage, selected from over 120,000 students at more than 1,700 schools nationwide. They took part in the 11th annual ceremony June 24, also streamed globally on Facebook and YouTube.

“It’s thrilling to see more students than ever participating,” says Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin. The League’s foundation presents the awards with support of an Advisory Board of Touring Broadway presenters and other industry leaders. The awards were founded by Pittsburgh CLO and The Nederlander Organization. “With so many young people creating musical theatre, the Jimmys reflect how Broadway’s popularity continues to become part of our culture,” says St. Martin. “It’s the real-life Glee.”

And the Jimmy Awards themselves have become part of theatre culture. The ceremony’s signature medleys, showcasing the students’ performances from the productions that got them there, have prompted many a YouTube binge for Broadway performers and enthusiasts alike. Feldman admits to obsessing over YouTube clips from previous ceremonies prior to competing.

He’s not the only one (nor is he the only Evan Hansen, even) to enjoy watching the students belt it out online. Ben Platt is a frequent attendee who hosted the 2017 and 2019 ceremonies; his awestruck reactions to the students that year merited a compilation reel of podium-side interjections. (Additional hosts have included Michael Cerveris, Zachary Levi, and Laura Benanti.)

Prior to performing on a Broadway stage, competitors arrive in New York City to take part in a week of special events, mentor-led workshops, and master classes (on top of rehearsals for the big night).

Marla Louissaint, a 2015 winner who recently completed performing in the national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, recalls a breakthrough moment with her Jimmys coach, Adam Kantor: “I had no formal vocal lessons; I hadn’t even been coached before. When I communicated my anxiety to him, he said it’s not about the vocals; as long as I’m telling the story, that’s all that mattered. When I meditate on what Adam said, I leave audition rooms feeling better about my work because the characters have more than a voice. They have a pulse.”

In addition to Kantor, Louissaint has fostered and maintained relationships with mentors such as Jeanine Tesori, Michael Mayer, and Lorin Latarro since the Jimmy Awards. Though she still performs and auditions, she is continuing her studies in Fordham’s Engineering Physics program. Computer science wasn’t quite part of the “Jimmys Week” curriculum, but the lessons she picked up are universal: “It’s a matter of trial and error until you get a segment of code or character choice working for you. Forward thinking and creativity are at the core of both professions, and I truly wouldn’t be happy without one or the other.”

Other members of the Jimmy Awards family include alumni Stephanie Styles (Kiss Me, Kate), Christian Thompson (Ain’t Too Proud), and current Hadestown star and two-time Tony nominee Eva Noblezada, who made her Broadway debut performance in the revival of Miss Saigon. Like Feldman, Noblezada first caught the eye of producers and casting directors as a finalist, back in 2013.

Noblezada remained a part of the Jimmys family, having performed alongside subsequent finalists and paying students a visit during their “Jimmys Week.” “She was a celebrity to them,” St. Martin recalls. “But they were celebrities to her; she loved being there with them.”

Feldman too has a soft spot for the future generation of Jimmy Awards contestants, and embraces the new class of winners: “Yes, the overall goal is to be on a Broadway stage again over the next few years, but you can tell every single kid knows what it means that they’re there in that moment and how special it is.”

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