NEW YORK – A teenager from suburban Chicago who sang an aching Jason Robert Brown song and another from Georgia who chose to sing "Raise the Roof" – and almost did so – have won top honors at the National High School Musical Theater Awards.
Atlanta resident Jai'Len Josey was named best actress and Jonah Rawitz, from the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove, got the best-actor crown Monday night at the sixth annual "Glee"-like competition, nicknamed the Jimmy Awards after theater owner James Nederlander.
"I can't emphasize enough how humbled I am to be within this crowd of such amazing actors and individuals. I've made so many amazing friends. I feel like I'm part of a family," said Rawitz. He also thanked him family, especially his mother, who he said taught him to be honest and "how to believe every word that I'm saying." Josey, who is going into her junior year at Tri-Cities High School, said it was "a dream come true."
Each will receive a $10,000 scholarship award, capping a months-long winnowing process that began with 60,000 students from 1,500 schools and ended at the Minskoff Theatre, the long-term home of "The Lion King," which doesn't perform on Mondays.
The 56 teens who made it to New York this year – 28 girls and 28 boys – got a five-day theatrical boot camp fueled by pizza at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, complete with scrambling to learn an opening and closing group number, performing their medley numbers, advice on their solo songs, plus a field trip to watch "Kinky Boots."
Judges were Rachel Hoffman from casting company Telsey + Company, Tony-nominated producer Arielle Tepper Madover, casting specialist Tara Rubin, Nick Scandalios from the Nederlander Organization, choreographer Sergio Trujillo and NYU's Kent Gash. Composer Stephen Schwartz offered pointers to the teens on Friday.
Rawitz sang from "In the Heights" as Usnavi in the ensemble number and then "If I Didn't Believe in You" from Brown's "The Last Five Years" as a solo. Josey sang Effie Melody White's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls" and then belted out a "Raise the Roof" from Andrew Lippa's "The Wild Party."
The host was Ryan McCartan, who co-stars in "Liv & Maddie" on the Disney Channel and "Royal Pains" on USA. He was proof of how far a Jimmy can go: McCartan in 2011 he won the competition. Others who have found fame include Eva Noblezada, who was a runner-up in 2013 and now plays the lead role of Kim in the London revival of "Miss Saigon."
The shows represented on Monday ranged from "Annie Get Your Gun" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" to "Singin' in the Rain" and "Into the Woods." There was a fair amount of overlapping of roles, with two Jean Valjeans from "Les Miserables," two Drowsy Chaperones and two Aldolphos from "The Drowsy Chaperone," two Usnavis from "In the Heights" and three Shreks from "Shrek," all thrown onstage to duke it out together. A young lady playing Annie Oakley from "Annie Get Your Gun" cradled a rifle and another playing the Tin Man held an axe.
The four runners-up, who each received $2,500, were: Mekahi Lee from Charlotte, North Carolina; Matthew Richards from Logan, Utah; Brooke Solan from Las Vegas; and Sophia Tzougros from Madison, Wisconsin. Andy Karl, from the Broadway musical "Rocky," stopped by and the whole cast helped him sing "Keep on Standing."