NEW YORK -- Sixty high school musical theater performers -- rising juniors, seniors and fresh graduates -- made their Broadway debuts Monday night, singing and dancing at the Minskoff Theatre in the finals of the Jimmy Awards, more formally named the National High School Musical Theater Awards.
The 60 were winners of regional best actor and actress competitions from New England to California. In Pittsburgh, that means the Gene Kelly Awards (Allegheny County), run by Pittsburgh CLO, and the Henry Mancini Awards (Beaver, Butler and Lawrence Counties), run by Pittsburgh Musical Theatre.
When the last note had been sung, the two overall winners were Joshua Grosso, representing the Broadway Star of the Future competition in Tampa, Fla., and Elizabeth Romero, from the John Raitt Awards in Fullerton, Calif. Each won a scholarship to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and $10,000. Mr. Grosso will eschew his scholarship -- at the post-show party he reaffirmed his plans to start his college career in September as a musical theater major at Carnegie Mellon University.
The two were selected from six finalists, announced after the intermission following considerable suspense and an earnest backstage debate by the seven judges. The six (who each won $2,500) then sang solo numbers in Act 2. Among the six was Erica Durham of Center Township and Central Valley High School. A Mancini Award winner, she already has made her debut at the Benedum, having played Little Inez in last summer's CLO production of "Hairspray."
Throughout, the Minskoff audience was treated to a slick production under the creative leadership of Pittsburgh CLO. Van Kaplan and Keisha Lalama were stage director and choreographer, with former Pittsburgher Michael Moricz as music director and arranger. Mr. Moricz was really the hidden star of the show, having created the six 10-performer medleys in which the student performers, in their original costumes, filled Act 1 with pieces of songs from the performances that won them their regional awards.
The show biz canny Minskoff audience of Broadway insiders and the performers' families and friends were alert to the many witty conjunctions as two Phantoms, two Aidas, three Belles and three Millies, among many others, were interwoven in the medleys. The two Phantoms were greeted by a Marius ("Les Mis") singing "phantom faces at the window" and then by two Bakers ("Into the Woods") singing "It takes two"; an anguished Sweeney Todd and Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde were consoled by a Henry Hill ("The Music Man") with "You've got trouble, my friends."; and the laments of various woebegone heroines were answered by the caustic advice of Katharine ("Kiss Me, Kate") and Lola ("Damn Yankees").
In the groups of 10, as each stepped forward for their featured moment, the others served as backup singers, adding its own comedy as the Phantoms, two Hortons ("Seussical"), Nathan Detroit, Jean Valjean ("Les Mis") and two Princess Winnifreds ("Once Upon a Mattress") joined to offer choral or kick line support. Filling all of Act 1, the six big medleys were like one dessert after another, prevented from any overdose of sweetness by the surprise of each witty conjunction of one character with another.
At the start of Act 2, the judges' choices of the six finalists were announced, and those six, now dressed in black dresses or colorful shirts, sang the solo from some unrelated show that they had brought with them to showcase their talent. Mr. Rosso sang the Italian version of "Light in the Piazza." With perfect deadpan comedy, Ms. Durham sang "Sal Tlay Ka Siti' (Salt Lake City) from "The Book of Mormon."
You wouldn't know it was a competition if you listened to the cheers from the other students backstage as each award was announced or witnessed the teary hugs at the huge post-show party, as new best friends promised to keep in touch while they take different paths in the months ahead. These bonds had been forged in the previous five days as all 60 were swept up in full days and nights of coaching sessions, rehearsals, visits to Broadway shows and group discussions with Broadway stars (among them Fox Chapel's and CMU's Christian Borle, a new Tony winner for "Peter and the Starcatcher," himself a former Kelly Award contestant).
At the party, Ms. Durham spoke of the "rush of emotion" when she herself was picked to be a finalist. "I was happy, excited, scared -- it was a surreal moment." Her parents, grandfather and three aunts were there to cheer her on. Next up is Penn State, where she will go to study musical theater.
Complimented on the wit of his song medleys, Mr. Moricz gave credit to his mentor: Don Brockett, the master of such humorous conjunctions, who taught him to cut from the middle of one song to the bridge of another, to catch the audience by surprise. "I've been using the Brockett technique for 30 years," he said.
The Jimmy Awards are named for James M. Nederlander, one of the great Broadway theater impresarios. Now in their fourth year, they were created by the conjunction of the Nederlander Organization and Pittsburgh CLO, which pioneered the high school musicals awards with its Gene Kelly Awards, now in their 21st year. The Kellys were the model first for regional high school musical competitions in other cities, countrywide, and then provided the template for the national Jimmys.
Because of Pittsburgh CLO's leadership, Pittsburghers were everywhere all week, shepherding the young contestants, coaching their performances, creating the show and managing the event. Lighting and sound design, for example, were by Pittsburgh regulars Andy Ostrowski and Chris Evans. Doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the Nederlander Organization was Pittsburgh native Susan Lee. And quite by coincidence, the post-show party was at a large Broadway restaurant decorated with huge murals by a Pittsburgh artist, Doug Cooper.
The panel of seven judges, however, was pure Broadway: actor Montego Glover ("Memphis"), teacher-director (and CMU grad) Kent Gash, director Scott Ellis, producers Alecia Parker and Nick Scandalios and casting directors Rachel Hoffman and Bernie Telsey. My role was "judicial coordinator," which meant I had to get them to speed up the process and cut to the chase -- which was largely unnecessary, because all of them were repeating as judges.
They have found, as have many in the audience, that the Jimmy Awards are fun. It isn't just a bunch of high school kids. They have real talent, and heart to match.
Put it another way: The Jimmys isn't some reality show: it's real.
Senior theater critic Chris Rawson: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published June 27, 2012 4:00 AM