‘I Might Be Real-Life Good at This’: Shooting for Broadway at the Jimmy Awards

Shortly after Damson Chola Jr. sang the powerful “Ragtime” anthem “Make Them Hear You,” in a commanding performance that drove the Minskoff Theater to delirium on Monday night, the young singer accepted the Jimmy Award for best actor. He gave an equally poised acceptance speech, expressing gratitude with a calm cadence and the occasional wry chuckle of someone who’s seen and heard it all.

“Is he 40?” my neighbor mused.

Hardly. The Jimmys celebrate excellence in high school musical theater, and Chola, a recent graduate, is 18. The winner for best actress, Gretchen Shope, perhaps more expected for their age group, included in her thanks “the girl on TikTok that said I looked like Chappell Roan.” Then again, Shope had just killed with “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” from “Funny Girl,” so who’s to say what’s typical when it comes to theater kids?

Formally known as the National High School Musical Theater Awards, the Jimmys were founded in 2009 by the theater organization Pittsburgh CLO and a division of the Nederlander Organization. (The nickname derives from that company’s onetime chairman, James M. Nederlander.) The awards have since grown significantly in size. This year, tens of thousands of participants from across the country were narrowed down, through regional awards programs, to 102 nominees.

The Jimmys have also grown in esteem: Casting agents for Broadway and national tours see them as a prime way to scout for promising performers. And you don’t even have to win to be noticed. Eva Noblezada, a 2013 finalist, went on to earn Tony Award nominations for “Miss Saigon” and “Hadestown” in 2017 and 2019, and she currently stars in “The Great Gatsby.” Casey Likes, a 2019 finalist, made his Broadway debut as the lead in “Almost Famous” and is now playing Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.” The guest presenters at the Minskoff included Justin Cooley, a 2021 finalist whose Tony nomination for his performance in “Kimberly Akimbo” came just two years later.

Andrew Barth Feldman, who is currently playing Seymour in the hit Off Broadway revival of “Little Shop of Horrors,” had just finished his sophomore year when he won at the 2018 Jimmys. (The best actress winner that year was Reneé Rapp, on the verge of Gen Z stardom.) Months later, Feldman made his Broadway debut in the “Dear Evan Hansen” title role. “I realized that I skipped the line,” he said in a phone interview last week, adding that the Jimmys had been a huge validation. “For me and my family, it was this moment of ‘OK, it might not just be that I’m passionate enough that I get cast in shows in our little town — I might actually be real-life good at this.’”

Real life and “Am I dreaming?” moments collided frequently in the days before the Minskoff showcase (available to stream until Thursday on Facebook and YouTube). The nominees arrived in New York City after a monthslong selection process that was based on their school production performances. (It’s easy to envision a spinoff of a certain Disney+ series that would go by “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: The Jimmys.”) “I ended up going to the Jimmys with the character Jean Valjean from ‘Les Misérables,’ which is a strong character to play at the ripe age of 17,” Likes said on the phone, reflecting a common casting issue. “I would say it’s the perfect age to play an old, dying man.” (In his opening monologue, the host, Josh Groban, joked that what was missing from the Tony Awards was “a 15-year-old singing Fosca from ‘Passion.’”)

“Les Miz,” of course, is a perennial high school favorite, alongside the likes of “Pippin” and “Into the Woods.” But now those shows sit comfortably alongside diverse newer picks like “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” “Cry-Baby” and “Parade,” providing a fascinating snapshot of how the musical theater canon is evolving. (Shope was selected on the strength of her performance in the relatively obscure “Alice by Heart” at her school in Michigan.)

The awards also shed a light on the evolution of casting parameters in drama departments: Marley Garner, who played Tony in her Los Angeles school’s “West Side Story,” delivered a scorching “Maria” at the Minskoff.

While in New York, the Jimmy nominees stayed at the Juilliard School for a whirlwind week that included sightseeing and tickets to the musical “MJ” and the Tonys. That last experience was “life-changing” for Theo Rickert, a rising senior at an Illinois high school. “I went back to my dorm and I just cried,” said Rickert (role: SpongeBob SquarePants). But mostly the nominees worked. They rehearsed intensively for the Monday event, which included a couple of big ensemble numbers and five medleys, in addition to the finalists’ solo spots. They also received hours of individual and group coaching. “I remember furiously taking notes every day, even when it wasn’t my song or my number being coached,” said McKenzie Kurtz, a nominee in 2013 and 2015 who has since landed major roles in Broadway productions of “Frozen,” “Wicked” and the recently closed “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” “I was trying to absorb as much information as I could.”

At one of the group coaching sessions, led by the actor Telly Leung, Jayden Murphy, from Nashville, hit a home run with “It All Fades Away” from “The Bridges of Madison County.” Never mind that the song is written for an older man reminiscing on a past romance: Murphy inhabited the part and his fellow nominees were entranced. “Chills,” one of them murmured.

Officially at least, newbies and alumni alike say it’s not about winning, but about learning and being surrounded by people as obsessed with musical theater as they are. “It is surreal being in the room with such talent and such drive, and such love for the art,” said Chola, who graduated from a high school near Dallas and was selected based on his performance as Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors.” “It almost makes me cry just thinking about it,” he continued. “I’m not the only one that loves it this much.”

Something the best actor winner had mentioned a few days earlier suddenly acquired a different ring after the ceremony. “My parents are immigrants from Zambia, and I’ve been raised in that ‘keep moving forward’ thing,” Chola had said. “They’re getting old and I want them to retire, but America is not very kind to immigrants when it comes to retirement. I would love to hopefully one day give them the American dream. This is just one step closer for me.”

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