Theater Awards Put Student Performers in the Spotlight

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Students who excel at spelling or know how to argue have long enjoyed annual recognition through the National Spelling Bee or the National Debate Tournament.

But, it wasn't until 2009 that the National High School Musical Theater Awards focused the spotlight on high-school musical-theater performers.

Established by the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and Nederlander Alliances LLC, the annual awards show, known informally as the Jimmys, takes place in June.

The Jimmys and many of the high-school musical-theater awards programs around the country are patterned, in part, on the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in Musical Theater, which were the first to draw attention to an area's high-school musical-theater programs in a big way.

"There had been other programs that celebrated high-school musicals, but nothing as elaborate and on the scale of the Gene Kelly Awards," says Van Kaplan, the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's executive producer who also serves as president of the National High School Musical Theater Awards and the producer and director of the Jimmy awards show.

The goal of the Gene Kelly Awards has stayed consistent since its founding in 1991, Kaplan says.

"Great work was going on in high-school musicals around the area, and we wanted to celebrate excellence in that area. We thought if we recognized it, students in high school would get more recognition," Kaplan says. "Now, we see more school districts investing in arts programs. Not only has the quality level skyrocketed because there is actual competition, but we have also seen schools investing in programs."

At the Jimmys this year, 60 winners of 30 regional high-school musical-theater competitions will compete in New York City. Among them will be best-actor and best-actress winners of the Gene Kelly Awards and the Henry Mancini Musical Theater Awards. The Mancini Awards, named after the famed composer and West Aliquippa native, are hosted by Geneva College and recognize high-school musical productions in Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties. This year, they take place on May 16.

For five days, the students take part in workshops, coaching, rehearsals and a performance on the stage of Broadway's Minskoff Theatre. Two individuals will receive best performance awards by an actor and an actress.

"It was intimidating but, definitely, the most intense and best experience of my life," says Baden resident and Quigley High School graduate John Michael Taormina, who participated in last year's Jimmy Awards program as the 2011 Mancini Award winner for outstanding male actor in a leading role.

Expanding recognition

While living in Pittsburgh, Michael Taormina -- now managing director of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta -- had served as a judge for the Gene Kelly Awards program. He wanted to create a similar awards program in Atlanta as part of the Cobb's ArtsBridge education experience.

Taormina hoped to ensure that those who participated in high- school musicals received the same sort of attention that was too often limited to those who played sports or marched in the band.

In 2009, the Schuler Hensley Awards made its debut. Named after the Georgia native and Tony Award-winning actor, the awards are open to any Georgia high school that produces a musical-theater production between September and March.

Like the Kelly Awards and the Tommy Tune Awards in Houston, a panel of judges chosen from the area's arts and education professional communities attend performances. Awards and scholarships are presented at a formal evening of performances that recognize technical and performance achievements in a variety of categories.

In its first year, 15 schools participated in the Schuler Hensley Awards program. …