By Evan Henerson
The stage was set. The players, clad in a mixture of rehearsal tights and hoodies, were locked in on the task at hand. Actor Sage Cobos idly twirled a plunger like a baton. Their 45 minutes of on-stage preparation time were dwindling away, and the company of de Toledo High School’s “Urinetown” still had vocal warm-ups to execute and a run through to run through.
Sage Cabos (right) directs the “Urinetown” cast with his plunger
The actual performance was not due to start for another two hours, but the company’s director spoke up with a final note of advice/warning.
“If you do not dance this to the point of exhaustion,” Diane Feldman told her ensemble, “I will seek vengeance upon you.”
The line may sound threatening, but Feldman – de Toledo’s drama, musical theater and vocal instruction teacher — knows her company, and nobody was intimidated. If a segment of your high school production is going to “graduate” from an auditorium or gymnasium to a one night showcase on the historic Hollywood Pantages Theatre, every member of your company will need to bring his or her A-game.
Feldman and the De Toledo “Urinetown-ers” did, and that’s why they were furiously blocking out the number “Run, Freedom, Run” which opened the second act of the 5th Annual Jerry Herman High School Musical Theatre Awards of Los Angeles. De Toledo, located in West Hills, was one of four schools selected to restage a portion of the musical staged during the year during the awards show.
The Archer School for Girls performs a medley from “Spring Awakening”
Joining de Toledo were The Archer School for Girls performing a rocking medley from its all-female production of “Spring Awakening,” Oaks Christian School’s rendition of “We’ve got Magic to do” from “Pippin” and Village Christian School’s tap-happy, chimney sweep-laden medley from “Disney’s Marry Poppins.” Each of the four productions ended up capturing at least one Jerry Herman Award during the evening.
Oaks Christian High School performing the opening number from “Pippin”
Village Christian High School performing a medley from “Disney’s Mary Poppins”
Those performance numbers barely constituted an appetizer on the Herman Awards’ menu of entertainment. Think you’ve seen casts of thousands represented on the Pantages stage? How about 50 young men and women belting out selections of songs from “42nd Street,” “A Chorus Line” “Hercules,” and “Dreamgirls” during the production’s opening number – “One Night. Once Chance”?
Jerry Herman Award’s opening number “One Night One Chance”
And that was just for starters during an evening full of celebrity presenters and awardees across all the theatrical disciplines. Three young men and three young women were selected from that group of 50 to perform a solo number for a panel of judges, with a trip to New York to participate in the National High School Musical (AKA The Jimmys) awarded to the best actor and best actress winners. During the auditions held two days before the event, each of the 50 actors had their work reviewed by industry veteran judges including McCoy Rigby Entertainment Services producer Cathy Rigby and hit-making director-choreographer Kenny Ortega.
Participants wait their turn to audition in front of the judges.
More than 30 public and private high schools from Conejo Valley to Orange County submitted productions for consideration across a variety of performance and technical categories. School administrators filled out forms at the beginning of the school year. The Hollywood Pantages sent volunteer adjudicators to all of the performances. In the spring, a team at the Pantages, working from the adjudicators’ notes and a DVD of the production, determined the nominees.
For two days leading up the show, the best actor and actress nominees auditioned before the panel of five judges. In sessions that lasted 10-15 minutes, each of the nearly 50 nominees got to sing one or two songs in front of Ortega, Rigby and fellow judges John Bowab, Lewis Wilkenfeld and Nancy Dussault. Following the audition, the judges offered encouragement and constructive professional feedback.
For Hamilton High School senior Emma Griffone, getting a taste of what a Broadway audition will be like was an invaluable experience.
“It’s so important,” she said. “Between the long rehearsal process we had this weekend and the auditions, it’s really great to know what it’s like to walk into an audition. The whole rehearsal process was almost like Chorus 101 for me, learning how to wait, how to stand there and to put together a number in a really short period of time. I think it’s really a lot about building your confidence about standing out but also working together on a collaborative experience.”
Emma Griffone (right) in rehearsals for the opening number
As participants and show producers continuously noted, opportunities for young artists to strut their stuff are rare. School arts programs are in constant jeopardy of losing funding forcing high school drama teachers and students alike to be creative in order to keep interest in the performing arts alive. The validation of a sold out theater full of students, teachers, parents, mentors and working theater folks can work wonders.
Wilkenfeld, the artistic director of the Cabrillo Music Theatre, knows this only too well. Working with many young performers at the start of their careers, Wilkenfeld joined the Jerry Herman Awards judging panel in 2015 in part because he understood the importance of keeping that spark alive.
“They were bussing us to shows when I was a kid, and now they don’t even do that,” Wilkenfeld said. “To see these kids falling in love with the arts, it’s keeping them focused. It’s keeping them in love with school. Even if they’re not a math whiz, even if their English theater bores them and they don’t understand science, they’re still coming to school for this.”
Broadway veteran Gregory Jbara echoed the sentiment. Jbarra attended the Herman awards both to present the award for Best Supporting Actor and to support the efforts of his son, Zachary, who is completing his first year at Hamilton High School’s performing arts magnet.
“I realize how lucky these kids are that there’s a situation like this where they get to be celebrated,” said Jbara, a Tony Award-winner for “Billy Elliott.” “I’m proud to be in the company of a community that says ‘This is important, and we will back you.’”
Greg Jbara (left) James L. Nederlander (right) pose on the red carpet for the 2016 Jerry Herman Awards
While only two performers will emerge from the experience bound for New York and a shot at the Jimmys, the general consensus among the participants is that every nominee – on stage or otherwise – is a winner.
“I don’t feel like it’s a competition at all,” said Cobos a leading actor candidate for de Toledo’s “Urinetown. “(All the nominees) rehearse for eight hours together. Everyone is so attentive and happy to be singing together. They’re singing, harmonizing, dancing – all the things we love to do. You just hear some of these kids’ voices and you think, ‘Oh my God, I want to sing with you!’”
Participants creating new friendships over lunch break on rehearsal day
“That we even managed to get here was a huge hurdle for us,” added Verdugo Hills High School Orchestra Director Victoria Lopez whose production of “Hairspray” was nominated for best orchestra. “We’re sharing a stage with the top schools in and around southern California. That in itself is a big award for us. This is a learning experience, and it will motivate the students to keep working and to keep trying to raise our standards.”
As celebratory as the entire event is, the event is not without its share of tension. For the judges, who spend concentrated time with nearly 50 hopeful actors and actresses ages 14 to 17, the auditions are a mixture of boostering, reassurance and maybe even scouting talent for future productions. Future Disney Channel star Ryan McCartan won the 2011 Jimmy Award for best actor before moving on to such projects as “Royal Pains,” “Liv and Maddie” and the upcoming TV adaptation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” directed by Ortega.
“It’s a great growing opportunity for every single participant,” Ortega said. “Every single kid that comes in here, they’re open and they’re thirsty. Some have never been in a situation like this before, standing in front of five people in the industry that are making a choice as to whether they’re going to move forward. We do our best to try to get them to relax, let them know ‘This is your home. We’re in your space.’”
Easier said than believed, sometimes. During her audition, San Marino High School’s Lauren Hickey – her hair still sporting the dye job from playing Audrey in SMHS’s spring production of “Little Shop of Horrors” – confessed to experiencing some nerves. After she displayed a bell-like soprano voice unleashing the satiric wistful “Somewhere That’s Green,” Hickey fielded an assortment of suggestions from the judges — be proud of your furniture covered in plastic, convey your amazement at owning a “big 12-inch (TV) screen.”
Lauren Hickey (pictured in stripes) rehearsing for the opening number
“Walking into this room, it might feel kind of cold,” Ortega told Hickey, “but you went somewhere with this song. I would like you to just shake it out, trust yourself, believe in the people who know what you have and go to that place where you went when you did this on stage. Bring us there.”
Hickey performed the song a second time, incorporating the notes, and eliciting a parting “brava!” from the judges. That same evening, the judges heard a completely different rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” from Canyon High School’s Abby Heywood whose character evoked comparisons to actress Megan Mullally. Heywood’s portrayal of “Little Shop’s” Audrey was markedly different from Hickey’s and the actress received a completely different set of notes.
Two nights later at the awards ceremony, Hickey advanced to the finals, joining fellow actresses Griffone and Antonia Vivino of Santa Susana High School. The three qualifying actors were Chaminade High School’s Alejandro Navarro, Zane Sipotz of Los Angeles County High School of the Arts (LACHSA) and Joshua Strobl of John Burroughs High School.
(From left) Antonia Vivino, Zane Sipotz, Lauren Hickey, Alejandro Navarro, Emma Griffone and Josh Strobl await to hear who will move onto New York for the Jimmy Awards.
Having gone through the Minneapolis Spotlight Awards five years earlier en route to winning the 2011 Jimmy, McCarten said he understood how the six finalists were feeling backstage as they prepared for the final vote. “They are freaking out right now,” he told the audience before presenting the No Small Parts award to de Toledo’s Brennen Klitzner.
And “freaking out” covered the range of emotions, agreed Griffone who said she spent a substantial portion of her time backstage waiting for the final award announcement pacing or slamming back glasses of water to keep from getting dehydrated. Griffone, who will attend Northwestern University in the fall, capped off her high school musical career with a mighty rendition of Evillene’s song “No Bad News” from “The Wiz.”
Emma Griffone (right) and Josh Strobl (left) give the performance of their lives to move onto the Jimmy Awards in NYC.
As the Herman Awards came to an end, the news was good for Griffone who won the Best Actress award. Strobl took the Best Actor prize. De Toledo’s “Urinetown” was awarded the Best Production.
Kenny Ortega presents the award for Best Production to the cast of de Toledo’s “Urinetown”
“For me, what’s important is not the awards,” de Toledo’s Feldman said. “It’s the fact that somebody came in and said ‘We like the story you told.’ It’s about being here collectively with all these people who are here for the same reason: because theatre speaks to them, because theater empowers them, because theater enlightens them, because we love it.”
Evan Henerson has been writing about theater in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. He was the Theater writer and critic for the Los Angeles Daily News for nine years and has written for Playbill Online, Backstage, American Theatre and Stage Directions.You can read his reviews on TheaterMania, CurtainUp and Examiner.com.