Keeping the Magic of the Jimmy Awards Alive From Home
After shutting down last year's program, a virtual edition of the National High School Musical Theater Awards will be presented on July 15.
A typical pandemic-free Broadway season is a marathon. The finish line is sleekly marked by the star-studded red carpet of the Tony Awards. But, every year, the indulgent post-race meal that folks across the New York theater industry look forward to stuffing their faces with — is the Jimmy Awards.
At its essence, the Jimmy Awards program is souped-up Broadway summer camp for a select group of talented high school students: Seeing Broadway shows, hanging at Sardi's, receiving coaching from Broadway pros, and packing in rehearsals (led by director Van Kaplan and choreographer Kiesha Lalama). The whirlwind week ends with a one-night-only performance at the enormous Minskoff Theatre (usually held on the last Monday in June when The Lion King crew has cleared out for the evening) where family, friends, and industry bigwigs cheer on their favorites like they're at a homecoming football game.
Best Actor and Best Actress Awards are presented, but the heartwarming allure of the night is its focus on celebration rather than competition. The show's opening number features the whole throng of nominees – girls in black dresses, shaggy-haired boys in solid-color button-ups and ties – moving in formation while singing a mash-up of the past season's most inspiring Broadway lyrics. In the smaller group medleys that follow, each nominee dons their high school costume and gets a minute in the spotlight to show off the performance that earned them their slot. Seymours, Millies, Baker's Wives, Pippins, and Val Jeans inevitably face off. Tensions (and musical-theater nerd-dom) run high until judges select finalists who will sing full solos to vie for the top prize, which includes money for educational scholarships.
Of course, when Broadway shut down in March 2020, so did the Jimmy Awards, and a door was closed on the group of students who would have made up the program's 12th class. "There was a void," says Lalama, who has been with the Jimmys since its inception. "We always say, we do the Jimmy Awards and that gets us through the next year. You're inspired, you relive it. That energy — there's nothing that can replace that."
"We were terribly disappointed," says Kaplan, thinking back on last year. "All of the preparations had been made, and we were, like everyone else, assuming that this was going to be a brief moment in time where we took a couple of weeks off and we'd all be going back to work. There's a whole class that we missed."
Named after the late theatrical producer James M. Nederlander, the Jimmy Awards (more formally known as the National High School Musical Theater Awards) is Kaplan's brainchild — one of the products of his 24 years as Pittsburgh CLO chief executive (just this year he announced his retirement from the organization). "One of the main reasons that we started this is — at least why I wanted to pursue this — is that I had a high school drama teacher, Barney Hammond, in Dallas, Texas, who changed my life," says Kaplan. "It's because of his influence and me seeing my first Broadway show that got me into this as a career. We just felt, all of us, that we wanted to find a way to offer opportunities to young people."
These opportunities, as Kaplan describes them, are not solely professional. "Yes, many of our participants go on to have incredible careers," says Kaplan. Two-time Tony nominee Eva Noblezada (Hadestown), Andrew Barth Feldman (Dear Evan Hansen), Stephanie Styles (Kiss Me, Kate), and Ryan McCartan (Heathers) are just a few who make that list. "We have been very fortunate to offer them the opportunity to be seen by the industry and all of that. But a lot of them go on to become doctors, or lawyers, or other things. The experience that they have building that self-confidence — that's something you carry with you for the rest of your life."
Though Broadway is only just starting to get back on its feet, Kaplan and Lalama did not want to allow another class of students to pass them by. Consequently, the two of them have spent the past year orchestrating a virtual Jimmys for 2021 that is as close an approximation of the real deal as is possible with modern technology and a show-must-go-on level of fortitude.
"There will be an opening number, production numbers, character-driven medleys, and soloists," says Kaplan, ensuring that this year's unconventional show (hosted by Broadway and High School Musical vet Corbin Bleu) will remain anchored in tradition. "We've spent the last two weeks working with each one of the nominees. They've done the normal thing that we do at the Jimmys. They've spent time with Broadway professionals who have coached them on their solo numbers and have worked with them very closely — actually probably more closely than normal because it's one-on-one in a Zoom session. They recorded all of these different musical numbers and then we went into a studio and put the show together with our host."
"It's been an interesting challenge," adds Lalama, who had to craft choreography that was both communicable and executable over Zoom. "I felt more of a one-on-one connection because of Zoom. I would be giving every single participant notes, through, 'Hey Jillian, can you please shift this camera to this angle as you're video-taping.' That process allowed us to have that one-on-one connection with them in a way that we may not have in the past. So there were several…bonuses?…," she says tentatively, "to the virtual contact that we had in communication. It allowed us to gain that sense of community that Van and I believe in so much."
Aside from producing a show that, for the first time, is entirely at the mercy of technology, Kaplan and Lalama's biggest concern going into this year was fostering the sense of community that typically defines the Jimmys experience. "Van and I are anchored in this idea of community," Lalama says. "And we held on to those concepts and ideas because we wanted to establish those relationships and that bond from day one."
Their first course of action: Jimmys speed-dating. "Not dating, though!" Kaplan jokingly clarifies. "Introductions."
"Each participant got to go through these one-minute introductions with each other and meet every single person that they were going to be interacting with through Zoom or in their coaching sessions," explains Lalama. Meanwhile, on the backdrop of this developing online hamlet, local communities were coming together for their students as well. "Some of the regional award programs decided to host their winners in their theaters or in their educational facilities to help them have a sense of community as they went through it," Lalama says.
"Another aspect — and for me, this is when I start crying," she continues, pausing. "What no one is going to see is a sense of community within their homes. They had parents video-taping, driving them to locations, aunts, uncles, sisters, friends helping them with their cameras for these on-location shoots, or even in their houses, to create these mini-films that we've created. And if they didn't have that kind of support, they really dug deep into filming themselves and finding a way to become a part of it even if they didn't have the resources."
The Jimmy Awards has always demanded an extraordinary level of professionalism from its teenage participants. But what was asked of them this year both exceeded and included more variables than any year prior. "Many of these students come from different demographics and different resources," says Lalama. "Some have a lot of resources and can snap their fingers and just buy a new laptop, and other students don't. So Van wanted to ensure that every single participant had equal opportunity."
Equal opportunity, in a year where the even playing field of an empty stage was not an option, showed up in a box at every student's door. "They were sent four big light kits to light themselves in their homes," says Kaplan, "and green screens, and white backgrounds, and black backgrounds, and microphones, and all of this great equipment — which they now have. It's theirs, and they can use it for college auditions or job interviews or whatever they're going to do."
"This again is a testament to Van and his belief in these young people," adds Lalama. "Van wanted to ensure that every single participant had that sense of security. It really helped them feel their best, look their best, and again, it's all about fostering that confidence. That's one of the reasons I love Van Kaplan so much. He just at his very core is a beautiful human being that believes in the best in these young hopefuls."
The final product of all of these families, communities, and artists coming together is yet to be seen — and is still a bit of a mystery to even Kaplan and Lalama. But, whatever it turns out to be, they believe it will convey the connection that has been built among all of worlds that helped make the beloved event possible — despite the distance between everyone's individual Zoom boxes. "It is going to be very, very different than what people have seen in the past, and I think much more intimate," says Lalama. "It's quite special."
Even so, neither Kaplan nor Lalama can help but daydream about next year when, with any luck, they finally return to their Broadway home. "Hmm, how's it going to feel walking into the Minskoff with our 90 nominees?" Kaplan wonders with a smile. "I think we're going to be over the moon."