As the lights went down at the Minskoff Theatre — home of the Tony Award-winning Disney musical The Lion King — 62 high school students, hailing from 31 regions across the United States, took the stage to make their Broadway debuts (and their dreams come true) in a national competition that celebrated high school theatre and was hosted by Tony Award-nominated Cinderella co-stars Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana.
An opening number — directed by Van Kaplan, choreographed by Kiesha Lalama and orchestrated by music director Michael Moricz — was received with thunderous applause from parents, friends, mentors and judges as the students performed a medley of hits from Broadway musicals such as Annie, Matilda, Newsies, Pippin, A Chorus Line and Wicked as well as the radio hit "We Are Young" by Fun. and Janelle Monáe.
Following the opening act were seven 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 Scott Ellis ( The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Kent Gash (founding director of NYU Tisch School of the Arts' New Studio on Broadway), Montego Glover ( Memphis), Rachel Hoffman (casting of First Date, Hands on a Hardbody, Bring It On), Alecia Parker (executive producer of Pippin, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), Nick Scandalios (chairman of The Broadway League and executive VP of the Nederlander Organization) and Bernard Telsey (casting of Tarzan, The Wedding Singer, The Color Purple) — based their score on their medley performance and their preliminary performance seen a day earlier in rehearsals.
"Seeing them the night before in preliminaries is a very integral process to seeing them the night of [the ceremony] because it just gives us an opportunity to get acquainted with the kids. There are 62 of them and six judges, so we need a little more time," explained Tony Award nominee Glover. "The best part about being a judge is that all the students are immensely talented. It's really not about 'picking.' It's about recognizing how happy they are to be there, how much they love the art form [and] how willing they are to commit and to improve their skill set. We, as judges, are sincerely just reflecting that energy."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
The medleys continued through the first act of the evening and included performances of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" from South Pacific, "Astonishing" from Little Women, "Bring Him Home" and "On My Own" from Les Misérables, "Run Freedom Run" from Urinetown, "Moments in the Woods" and "On the Steps of the Palace" from Into the Woods, "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" from Anything Goes, "Three Bedroom House" and "Let Me Walk Among You" from Bat Boy, "All That Jazz" from Chicago, "Holding Out For a Hero" from Footloose, "So Much Better" from Legally Blonde and many more. A highlight of the evening featured five young Bakers from different productions of Into the Woods performing a medley of Stephen Sondheim's "No More" and "It Takes Two" (which was changed to "It Takes Five").
"I'm so proud of them," coach and mentor Telly Leung, of Broadway's Godspell, told Playbill.com at the Jimmy Awards after party at John's Pizzeria in Times Square. "When I'm done with the two days that I coach them, I feel like, 'Good. Broadway's in good hands.' They're put into this pressure-cooker environment to rehearse all of this material in five days, and it's a competition, [but on] day one, I tell them, 'This is not a competition. The best part of being here is that you're going to meet your future castmates… This is your future family. If you can take your material and elevate it to a new level, you've won.'"
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
The students — already winners from their hometown regional competitions, sponsored by professional theatre organizations in cities across America — were then narrowed down to six finalists (judges could not decide on three females and added a seventh finalist for the second time in Jimmy Awards history). They were Michael Burrell (Baker in Into the Woods from Mission Viejo, CA); Jillian Caillouette (Jo in Little Women from Norwich, CT); Austin Crute (Scarecrow in The Wiz from Atlanta, GA); Martha Hellerman (Wendla in Spring Awakening from Madison, WI); Eva Maria Noblezada (Ariel in Footloose from Charlotte, NC); Sarah Lynn Marion (Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! from Fullerton, CA); and Taylor Varga (J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed… from Norwich, CT).
"It was a little tough back there! We were debating… It was hard to get down to three [choices for each category], and we couldn't get down to three women, so we opted for four," admitted judge Scandalios, who is chairman of The Broadway League and executive VP of the Nederlander Organization. "What's always amazing to me is that no matter what you're going through, you come and you see these kids, and you re-inspire yourself to love what you do."
|Photo by Henry McGee/NHSMTA|
Each finalist went on to perform a solo for the judges. Varga, who was named the 2013 Best Actor, filled the Minskoff with "Santa Fe" from the Disney musical Newsies, and Marion, the 2013 Best Actress, brought down the house and commanded the stage with her performance of "Raunchy" from 110 in the Shade. "[In 'Raunchy'], I got to act a way that I don't normally get to on a daily basis. It was freeing! I get to sing the best notes that are in my range, and I get to be sexy on stage, and it's exciting," said Marion, who admitted that "Raunchy" was an unlikely and scary choice for her Broadway solo. "It's a rush of emotions. I've never felt this way before. I've worked so hard for this. To be honest, I was shocked when they said my name. There's so much talent in that room and on that stage, and everyone is amazing — beyond crazy talented. [When] they said my name, I was floored. I was at a loss for words, and I still am."
Although at a "loss for words," the Best Actress managed to thank her mother in her acceptance speech and continued to sing her praises at the Jimmys after party. "My mom is everything that I am," she said. "I got my voice from my mom. I am who I am today because of my mom's strength — to get through the hard times and to be able to overcome evil and obstacles… She's my hero. She's my rock. She's my number one."
"None of us could be here without the support of each other," added Best Actor Varga. "It was truly an honor [to perform on Broadway] because you're sharing a stage and an environment with professionals who have been at it so long and who do it every night, eight times a week. It's mind-boggling to think that you are one of thousands who are able to do it."
The winners (and recent high school graduates) — who 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) — plan for college in the fall.
The five runners-up each received a $2,500 scholarship toward their future education from the Barry and Fran Weissler Foundation, and additional awards were presented to Billy Krager (Best Performance in an Ensemble), Jillian Caillouette (Most Improved) and Brian Baylor (Spirit of the Jimmy Awards). Another student, McKenzie Kurtz, was selected to attend Carnegie Mellon University's six-week pre-college drama program. The students, beaming from their Broadway debut and their year of theatrical accomplishments, celebrated at John's Pizzeria until the stroke of midnight.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)