Every spring for the past decade, dozens of high school theater students in New York City and the surrounding area have gathered together to compete for what are now known as the Roger Rees Awards, named in honor of the celebrated actor who passed away in 2015.
The two winners who take home the top prizes of Best Actor and Best Actress at the Roger Rees ceremony head to The National High School Musical Theatre Awards, known as The Jimmy Awards, which are named after the late great theater impresario, James M. Nederlander.
At The Jimmys, students perform on a Broadway stage opposite peers from across the nation and compete for cash prizes and scholarships to some of the best theater programs in the country.
On a personal note, watching students from the Roger Rees Awards advance to The Jimmy Awards are something I look forward to every year. I was delighted when Susan Lee, founder of the Roger Rees Awards and CAMP BROADWAY, invited me to join the board of the organization a few years back.
The board is made up of working professionals in the entertainment industry: producers, general managers, writers, and more. Over the years, we’ve helped grow our rather “young” ceremony, which originally began in a Broadway rehearsal studio, to an actual presentation in a high school auditorium. So, as we approached the 10th anniversary of the awards, there was a big plan in store for this year’s show.
I’m honored that the board has once again asked me to host this year’s ceremony and I’m delighted that I’ll be joined by the 2018 Roger Rees Award winner and 2018 Jimmy Award winner Andrew Barth Feldman.
Feldman famously got his first Broadway gig courtesy of The Jimmy Awards after winning Best Actor at the Roger Rees Awards. At the 2018 ceremony, he was spotted by producer Stacey Mindich, who insisted he would make for a perfect “Evan” in her Tony-winning hit musical: Dear Evan Hansen. Months later, Andrew made his debut as the title character where he earned rave reviews.
I recently caught up with Susan Lee to discuss the 2020 Roger Rees Awards and more.
FRANK: Susan — congrats on the 10th Anniversary of The Roger Rees Awards! Let’s talk about the genesis of this regional ceremony.
SUSAN: It all started because of The National High School Musical Theatre Awards, which we began about 12 years ago. In the first two years of the program, there was no mechanism for New York City kids to participate in this national celebration of high school talent. And we felt that we were really remiss if New York City didn’t jump into the competition. So the team at CAMP BROADWAY determined that [we] were going to create a program that would celebrate kids in high school in the greater New York area. And so we became the regional chapter of The National High School Musical Theatre Awards.
When the pandemic hit, did you think “oh no, we’re not going to be able to celebrate our 10th anniversary this year?”
You know, we just like everyone in the city and in the country, we stopped to think “what do we do during this moment?” But we felt that with modern technology we would give it a go. And the first thing that we did was that we reached out to the teachers of all the schools in the area. And this year we had 53 schools that had registered their students to participate. So we wrote to them and we asked if this mattered, if they had the ability to collaborate with us, and if they wanted something to happen. And we heard from 50 of the 53 schools and they said, yes, please acknowledge these kids. Please acknowledge the work that they’ve done and we’ll be happy to work with you to adapt the rules a little bit for this year’s adapted judication process.
Walk me through this year’s show. How will it play out?
The first thing we did was we reached out to all of the schools to ask them to nominate two students that best represented their show and their school. We invited all of the students that were nominated to submit an audition video. The reason being is that we want to even the playing field between those schools that had had a full rehearsal and done their production and schools that were either in rehearsal and hadn’t done their production. We received back 87 audition videos that our first team of professionals reviewed and they selected the 50 students, 25 boys and 25 girls who would move forward as the “nominees” for the Roger Rees Awards. We also felt, however, that all of the students that participated should have an opportunity to be in the show this year. So we found a wonderful special program for them to do as well. So that’s how we arrived at the 87 kids that will be participating in the show that you’re going to see.
In a normal year, the winners of The Roger Rees Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress go on to compete at The National High School Musical Theatre Awards. That’s not happening this year, so what’s the top prize?
This year we are working on a scholarship for the two winning students, which I can’t tell you about at this moment, but we will be able to announce a little later.
I need to point out that our students have done pretty well on the national competition level…
Yes, we’ve had 3 national winners in the last 5 years. Marla Louissaint, Andrew Barth Feldman, and Ekele Ukegbu.
Susan, I also need to mention — The Roger Rees Awards aren’t the only awards given out at the ceremony, there are other awards as well…
It was really important to us that we begin to develop portfolio honors that will allow us to recognize the many careers in the theater. So every year we’re trying to introduce new awards. This year Playbill will give an award — the “PLAYBILLderAward for Marketing” is provided to the school who has done the best job in creating a program, posters and all of the different marketing materials that go into promoting their productions. We want to promote the business side of the theater as well. And this year too, we’re really excited that this is the second annual, “Dear Evan Hansen – YOU WILL BE FOUND” college essay competition. We will be granting a winner shortly who will win a $1,500 scholarship to the school of their choice. And what’s really remarkable about that program is that we get to read the most wonderful, thoughtful writing of hundreds and hundreds of young college high school students who have entered that competition.
The Roger Rees Awards weren’t always called “The Roger Rees Awards.” Talk about the origin of the name.
10 years ago when we started the program, we named it “The Gershwin Awards” because we thought, well, musicals…Gershwin Awards. And we kept it that way for about three or four years. And when Roger Rees passed a number of years ago, we just felt that Roger’s quintessence as an artist, as a director, as a writer, as a human just represented the kind of ethos that we wanted the program to have. And what many people don’t know about Roger is he committed his entire working life to inspiring young artists, to working with them, to coaching with them. The body of work that he has done in education people are just unfamiliar with. So we felt that his spirit was the perfect manifestation of the kind of artists and humanitarians that we wanted to inspire.
You’ve been at the helm of this awards ceremony for 10 years strong, what’s your fondest memory?
That’s so hard to choose because every time a student gets up in front of a room full of people and confidently expresses themselves in a joyful way, that’s a memory. And so if we’ve had 40 or 50 kids every year times ten years, that’s 500 really wonderful memories. It’s impossible to pick one over another.
Susan, I’ve seen this program really grow and develop over the years and that really does come down to you. You must feel like a proud parent…
I couldn’t have done it alone. There are dozens and dozens of artists working in every aspect of the industry who love the Roger Rees Awards as much as I do. Many of them have worked with Roger and feel that this is a wonderful way to honor him, but most importantly, almost everyone that you meet in the field really believes that it’s important that students have these kinds of opportunities. How many artists say: “what got me into the theater was my high school musical?” This is a seminal moment for so many of these kids. And I think everyone in the industry is really recognizing the importance that this touchpoint, especially at this time, provides for these students.
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