The winners of the 2019 Jimmy Awards are 18-year-olds Ekele Ukegbu of Elmont, New York, and Ethan Kelso of Logan, Utah.
Each went home with a $25,000 scholarship. The competition, also known as the High School Musical Theatre Awards, celebrates the best high school performers from around the country.
Ukegbu sang from Aida in the first half of the competition and then “I’m Here” from The Color Purple in the second half. Kelso was first part of the Wicked medley and then sang “Wondering” from The Bridges of Madison County in the finalists’ round.
Kelso says he made performing his “safe place” in order to help cope with an unstable childhood. When he was 3, his father passed away, and his mother suffered from alcohol and drug addiction. Kelso lived in poverty, without electricity. He was legally removed from his home and placed in foster care. When his grandparents adopted him when he was 8, they suggested he get into musical theater.
Competing in the Jimmy Awards was a testament to his dedication to his craft. “The energy within everybody is so insane,” Kelso says of getting to study with Broadway veterans, including the creative team of Wicked. “It was very intimidating. We were super excited to work with [choreographer] Wayne Cilento.” Now Kelso is a rising star with dreams of Broadway.
Tony Award winner Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) hosted the teen showcase at the Minskoff Theatre Monday night. The talent was so impressive that any one of the students could be in a Broadway show right now — and with big-time casting directors in the audience, they soon could be.
“Let this be a lesson to Broadway stars. They are coming for your jobs,” Platt quipped. As host, he referenced his high school theater career and a performance in Pippin (in front of composer Stephen Schwartz himself) with Booksmart actress Beanie Feldstein, who made her own Broadway debut in Hello, Dolly! Platt joked: “If you don’t know who she is — leave!”
The Jimmy Awards are named after the late producer James L. Nederlander. This year, there was a record 86 nominees competing in the program presented by The Broadway League. The students spent the week in New York City working directly with Broadway professionals, rehearsing for the big night at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Three of the teens had never been on a plane before, while another 20 had never seen a Broadway show until this past week. All their faces were featured on a billboard in Times Square.
“[It’s] my first time performing on a Broadway stage, so that’s scary,” said Axyl Langford, 17, a junior from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who once performed “For Good” on stage with Kristin Chenoweth. At the Jimmy Awards, Langford participated in a tribute number in honor of Wicked’s 15th anniversary.
Rodney McKinner III, an 18-year-old from Memphis, was also in the Wicked tribute. He explains the process has been fun but intense: “Intense in a good way. It’s teaching us how to be better at our art form,” he says.
“Absolutely incredible,” says Senna Prasatthong-osoth from Tampa, Florida, of the experience. “It’s definitely terrifying knowing who’s in the audience, but I think we are overly prepared.” Prasatthong-osoth won the Best Performance in an Ensemble award and a $2,000 scholarship.
Lea Salonga and Heather Headley are two of Hannah Restuccia’s idols. The 18-year-old from Orlando, Florida, sang in a Drowsy Chaperone duet. She says she learned so much about the business by “adding character” to what she’s singing about. Restuccia says she would love to meet last year’s winner Renee Rapp. The 19-year-old is currently making her Broadway debut as Regina George in Mean Girls.
Rapp is one of nearly a dozen former Jimmy Award winners who have been in Broadway shows over the past year. Last year’s other winner, Andrew Barth Feldman, stars as Evan in Dear Evan Hansen. Eva Noblezada, a 2013 winner, is starring as Eurydice in Hadestown. Jimmy Awards 2010 winner Kyle Selig is Aaron Samuels in Mean Girls.