NEW YORK – In a steaming, stuffy classroom downtown, it was time for some talented youngsters to face the music.
Half a dozen high school students from across the country were being critiqued on their singing and performance skills by a coach helping them prepare for the National High School Musical Theater Awards on Monday night.
One student from California was warned to perform "I Believe" from "The Book of Mormon" without an ounce of smirk. A teen from Utah was advised not to overthink a Stephen Sondheim lyric. And when a Colorado student wanted advice on whether she was better off singing a serious song from "Aida" or a funny one from "Cinderella," she was asked to sing both. The funny one came out on top.
"That's the one," said the coach, Tony Award-nominee Liz Callaway, whose Broadway credits include "Miss Saigon" and "Baby." The student, Nicole Seefried, seemed convinced — and relieved. "It is," she said, happily.
The teens were among 62 hoping to be crowned top actor and top actress at this year's contest. Now in its fifth year, the National High School Musical Theater Awards will be held Monday at the Minskoff Theatre, the long-term home of "The Lion King."
The 62 teens who made it to New York — 31 girls and 31 boys — get a five-day theatrical boot camp at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, complete with scrambling to learn an opening and closing group number, intense advice on their solo songs, plus a field trip to watch "Annie" on Broadway and dinner at famed theater-district hangout Sardi's. It's not all glamorous, though. Hours are spent in plain classrooms on plastic chairs, with battered pianos and bottles of water.
"It's an experience that's going to stay with them for the rest of their lives," said Van Kaplan, president of the awards organization and the show's director.
Both top winners will receive a scholarship award, capping a monthslong winnowing process that began with 50,000 students from 1,000 schools. This year's contestants come from 20 states: Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Nevada, Utah, Wisconsin, Tennessee, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Florida and Kansas.
On Monday night, all 62 will perform snippets of the songs that they sung at regional competitions as part of several large medleys, and then six finalists — three boys and three girls — will be plucked to sing solos. The winners will be picked from the last six.
Kyle Selig, 20, of Long Beach, Calif., won the best actor award in 2010 and is now a student at Carnegie Mellon University. He returned to help out this year and managed to cram in a few auditions to Broadway shows, including "The Book of Mormon."
"It was a validation of what I should be doing," he said of his win.
In addition to Callaway, the tutors included theater pros Leslie Odom Jr., Michael McElroy and Telly Leung. The judges on Monday will include Tony-winning director Scott Ellis, Tony nominee Montego Glover and casting professional Bernie Telsey. The hosts will be Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana, who co-star in "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella."
Nicknamed the Jimmy Awards after theater owner James Nederlander, whose company is a co-sponsor of the ceremony, the awards spotlight a high level of talent and maturity for children ages 14 to 18. Performances can range from "Bye Bye Birdie" to "Legally Blonde" to "Sweeney Todd."
The number of programs sending students grows each year — it started with 16 and now stands at 31 — and Kaplan says interest has been fueled by TV shows like "Glee" and "Smash."
The competition has also apparently reversed the trend away from arts funding for many regions. "Where usually arts programs are the very first things that get cut, we're seeing school districts invest in the arts because of programs like this," Kaplan says.
The Jimmy Awards had a profound effect on Stephen Mark, 21, of Norwich, Conn. He was a junior intent on studying computer science in college when he became the competition's first male winner in 2009.
The victory convinced him and his family that he should follow his heart into the performing arts. He is now studying musical theater at New York University. "It actually completely changed my life," he says.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits