While most shows were dark June 30, there was still "Magic to Do" on Broadway, and a Pippin, a Leading Player and a handful of Jean Valjeans still graced the Great White Way at the 2014 National High School Musical Theater Awards.
Directed by Van Kaplan, choreographed by Kiesha Lalama and orchestrated by music director Michael Moricz, 56 high school students, hailing from 31 regions across the United States, made their Broadway debuts in a national competition that celebrated high school theatre and was hosted by Ryan McCartan, the 2011 Jimmy Award winner who recently starred as JD in the Off-Broadway musical Heathers and appears on Disney's "Liv & Maddie."
As the lights went down at the Minskoff, the students rushed the stage for an opening number that included "On Broadway" from Smokey Joes Cafe, "No More Wasted Time" from the new Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey musical If/Then, "For Good" from the long-running hit musical Wicked, "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" from The Lion King. The teenagers gleamed as they sang Simba's lyric, "Everywhere you look I'm standing in the spotlight," directly from Broadway's Pride Rock.
Following the opening act were six medleys, in which groups of Best Actor and Best Actress Jimmy nominees performed a snippet of their award-winning high school performances in costume, as their character. The panel of judges — which included Sergio Trujillo (Tony-winning choreographer of Memphis), Kent Gash (New Studio on Broadway, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Drama), Rachel Hoffman (Telsey + Company), Arielle Tepper Madover (Tony Award-winning producer), Tara Rubin (Tara Rubin Casting) and Nick Scandalios (Nederlander Organization) — based their score on their medley performance and their preliminary performance seen a day earlier in rehearsals. Krystal Joy Brown, Adam Kantor, Julia Murney, Andrea Burns and Renee Elise Goldsberry previously coached the students throughout their week in New York City.
"I said to them, 'I know this is a 'competition,' but now let's throw that out because it's not," said coach Murney at the show's after party at John's Pizzeria. "I know extraordinary people who've never been nominated for a Tony, let alone won one. [I told] them, 'I'm proud of you, regardless. I want to buy you all a milkshake no matter what happens… Just find your joy in what you're doing, and let's just do it.' And, I do think they all bond very quickly because they're with these people who they know — they don't know, but they know, in their soul."
The students rallied behind one another in the various medleys, where the audience was offered "Last Midnight" from Into the Woods, "For You" and "It's Possible" from Seussical, a comedic "Adolpho" from The Drowsy Chaperone, a heartfelt "Bring Him Home" from Les Miz, "I Can Hear the Bells" and "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray, "It Won't Be Long Now" and the title song from In the Heights, "Run Freedom Run" and "Follow Your Heart" from Urinetown, "I'd Give My Life For You" from Miss Saigon (performed by Playbill Jimmy blogger Emma Magbanua) and a show-stopping "And I Am Telling You" from Dreamgirls (performed by this year's Best Actress winner Jai'len Josey), among others.
Although already winners from their hometown regional competitions, sponsored by professional theatre organizations in cities across America, they were then narrowed down to six finalists: Matthew Richards (Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel from Utah High School in UT), Mekhai Lee (Shrek in Shrek the Musical from Northwest School of the Arts in NC), Jonah Rawitz (Usnavi in In the Heights from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in IL), Josey (Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls from Tri-Cities High School in GA), Sophia Tzougros (Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie from Kettle Moraine School for Arts and Performance in WI) and Brooke Solan (Janet Van De Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone from Faith Luthern High School in NV). The finalists rushed off stage to prepare their solos, in which Off-Broadway shows were highly represented this year. Richards performed "She Cries" from Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World (in which coach Burns starred in), Rawitz performed a touching "If I Didn't Believe in You" from Brown's Last Five Years (in which coach Kantor starred in the recent Off-Broadway revival), and Josey performed "Raise the Roof" from The Wild Party (in which coach Murney starred in).
Murney added, "Andrea Burns said to me, 'Now look at that! Our little Off-Broadway shows that we thought no one would care about at all totally represented by the Jimmys!' It's a riot. It's such a riot to see, and it's so exciting, and they're all so in it. It's really thrilling. Even the ones that I coached, each one of them would do their little medley thing, and you feel like you're somehow responsible for them, which I'm not at all. I had them for two days, but I just have a heart for them."
Rawitz, who won for his performance of "If I Didn't Believe in You," said, "I think it just has such a beautiful story in that one song. The lyrics of Jason Robert Brown… He's such an amazing composer. Through the lyrics, he's able to tell the story and communicate this emotion. I wanted the opportunity to portray that… I was nervous. I was excited. It's just an amazing night, and I'm numb right now."
Josey was also at a loss for words after winning the coveted title. "I didn't think I was going to get it," she admitted. "I don't know what to think right now. I'm in shock… That's a big song. Singing [Julia Murney's] song, it gives me a drive. She's done it, so I had her to look up to. It's an honor to do her song."
The winners received $10,000 from the Nederlander Organization to further their education and will be eligible for four-year merit and need-based scholarship assistance to attend the New Studio on Broadway, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Drama (contingent upon acceptance into the program). Josey was also offered a scholarship opportunity through Carnegie Mellon, which she said, is her "dream school." Although she is a sophomore, she said that she is already planning to study at Carnegie Mellon University.
The five runners-up each received a $2,500 scholarship toward their future education from the Barry and Fran Weissler Foundation.
The students, smiling ear to ear after a night on the Great White Way, grabbed pizza, frozen desserts and cupcakes and celebrated their year of theatrical accomplishments.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael).