Students participating in the annual Jimmy Awards
Students participating in the annual Jimmy Awards

The Jimmy Awards Celebrate High School Musical Theater

From coast to coast, over the past months, more than a thousand high schools across the country have been gearing up for the annual musical theater competition in their local regions. The excitement has been building towards the main event: the 5th Annual National High School Musical Theater Awards (NHSMTA), which will be held in New York on July 1 at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway, home of The Lion King.
The ceremony will be hosted by Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana, Broadway’s current Cinderella and Prince Charming, in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Student winners from 31 regional programs will compete for the Jimmy™ Award, the coveted honor given for Best Performance by an Actress and Best Performance by an Actor — think of it as the Tony Awards® for high school musical theater achievement — named after Broadway theater owner and producer James M. (“Jimmy”) Nederlander. Naming the awards after the legendary chairman of the Nederlander Organization was a way “to celebrate Jimmy Nederlander’s career-long dedication to nurturing young talent in all aspects of the theater—including performers, directors, writers, designers and even stage hands,” says Susan Lee, Chief Marketing Officer of the Nederlander Organization and NHSMTA Executive Director.

The National High School Musical Theater Awards were founded in 2009 by the Pittsburgh CLO and Nederlander to create “a connection between the talented students in the amateur arena of high school musicals and the professional theater world,” says Pittsburgh CLO Executive Producer and NHSMTA President Van Kaplan.  “Because musical theater is an accessible art form, we attract students from a very diverse cross-section of America who are passionate about theater,” he says.  The goals of the national awards program, Van Kaplan explains, are “to elevate the profile of musical theater in our schools and communities, create scholarship opportunities for our participants, and build professional pathways should these young performers choose a career in the theater,” adding that “this enrichment program prepares them to enter the professional world no matter which industry they choose.”

Since its inception, NHSMTA has been the catalyst for more than $750,000 in educational scholarships awarded to deserving young performers.  Over the past five years, the program has been supported by industry leaders and generous donors including NYU Tisch School of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Shubert Organization, The Broadway League, Tams-Witmark Music Library, Inc., Disney Theatrical Productions, Barry & Fran Weissler/BWF Foundation and Jujamcyn Theaters.

The model for the Jimmy™ Awards is Pittsburgh CLO’s own Gene Kelly Awards, which was launched 23 years ago to galvanize the high school musical theater talent in southwestern Pennsylvania. Performing arts centers across the country are presenting their own regional program such as the Betty Lynn Buckley Awards (Fort Worth, TX), The Gershwin Awards (New York, NY), The Jerry Herman Awards (Los Angeles, CA); Shuler Hensley Awards (Atlanta, GA); and Tommy Tune Awards (Houston, TX).  “Working as a coalition, this group of 31 theatres has created a national stimulus package for showcasing theater in the schools,” notes Lee. “ NHSMTA shines a spotlight on musical theater arts and provides a platform for the schools and their local performing arts centers, literally creating a more meaningful relationship between the professional theater community and the schools in their area.”

Sonya Baehr, a senior theater faculty member at Poly Prep Country Day School, Brooklyn, New York, trained both this year’s Gershwin Award-winner for Best Actor and a prior Best Actress award-winner from two years ago.  For her recent production of West Side Story, she brought in a professional choreographer and combat trainer to work with her students. “When students can work with people like this who take their work very seriously, the level rises, because then the students take their work seriously as well,” says Baehr. “We have also managed to bridge the gap in our school between arts and athletics,” she adds, reporting that in a past school production of Oklahoma!, the part of Curly was played by the captain of the football team. “Theater involves so many elements of your intelligence,” she continues. “It links aesthetic intelligence with verbal; music involves you with math and abstract thinking as well.  Theater can really bring out the best in a wide range of students, and bring them together in an interchange where they learn from each other.”

Within the first five years of its existence, the number of participating regional arts organizations that participated in the inauguration of The National High School Musical Theater Awards has nearly doubled.  The value of theater arts programs in the schools is very much in evidence.  “When a school puts on a show it touches a lot more people than just the kids on stage,” notes Lee. “Putting on a musical is like starting a small business, and many schools are using the producing and marketing of a show – buying materials for the sets, selling tickets – as a way of teaching the students all different aspects of running a business.  It becomes a life skill exercise.”

Tickets to the National High School Musical Theater Awards on Monday, July 1, 2013 at the Minskoff Theatre can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com.

NHSMTA is funded by the Broadway Education Alliance (BEA), the non-profit theatre, performing arts and live entertainment industries service organization dedicated to building coalitions that support theatre arts education and cultural studies for audiences of all ages.  To help support the NHSMTA, please visit The Broadway Education Alliance.