Dallas — The third Dallas Summer Musicals High School Musical Theater Awards ceremony is Wednesday, April 30, at the Music Hall at Fair Park, and while they are the third such awards to pop up on the local scene—after Casa Mañana’s 14-year-old Betty Lynn Buckley Awards and Lyric Stage’s 4-year-old Schmidt and Jones Awards—the DSM awards have become the biggest game in town, and already one of the largest in the country.
At DSM’s first awards in 2012, 30 schools participated. In 2013, that bumped up to 47. This year, it’s 56. Part of the reason for the expansion is that DSM has widened its reach. In the first two years, it was open to schools in Dallas and most surrounding counties, excluding Tarrant, which was the Buckleys’ purview. But as of this season, Tarrant was included because DSM is now the only official local awards of the National High School Musical Theater Awards (NHSMTA), knocking the Buckley and Jones/Schmidt awards out of that designation.
What that means is that, unlike the previous two years, in which all three programs sent their best actor and actress winners to compete in New York against winners from around the country, only the official NHSMTA institution gets to do that now. Performing at the national competition, the Jimmy Awards, is a big boost for students hoping to be seen by colleges and talent scouts.
“The theater has to be member of the Broadway League, which Dallas Summer Musicals is,” says Tracy Jordan, who has headed the DSM HSMTA from the beginning, and started working on a proposal for DSM to adopt the program in 2006. “Nationals were looking to create regional affiliates across the country. We’re the affiliate in North Texas, [Houston’s] Tommy Tune Awards are the affiliate in South Texas, and the group that runs the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio will be the affiliate for Central and West Texas.
It’s a decision that has been met with disappointment by the other two organizations.
“I am saddened that NHSMTA made the decision to include only one North Texas high school musical theatre awards program,” says Valerie Galloway Chapa, managing director of Lyric Stage and the person in charge of the Schmidt and Jones Awards, which are named after the Texans who created the groundbreaking musical The Fantasticks. “The result of this decision is that the full measure of North Texas talent will not be seen in NYC this year. Regardless of which program a school participates in, the purpose of all the programs is to honor the artistic talent and work of the students and teachers. For a student to represent his or her awards program in NYC is a great honor for both the student, the school and the sponsoring theater company. For that honor to be denied by limiting program participants defeats the NHSMTA mission statement."
“It is my hope that NHSMTA will change their decision in the future,” she adds. “However, between now and that time, Lyric Stage and the Schmidt and Jones Awards will continue to honor our local students. If schools wish to participate in more than one awards program next year in order to be eligible for a trip to NYC, I see no problem with that.”
That is indeed an option. Now schools are allowed to participate in two or all three of the awards programs if they're in a county covered by each; we’ll know if that has happened when the 2014-15 school season begins.
“Now they can enter all three programs now and can get feedback from three different judges,” says Jordan. “That’s a positive thing.”
The Buckleys, which began in 2001, is open to schools in Denton, Wise, Parker, Hood, Johnson and Tarrant counties, and this season, became the first HSMTA program to open up their awards to plays. This year, there are 24 schools participating, representing 17 musicals and 13 plays (three schools entered a musical and a play). There were 18 participants in 2012/13. The Schmidt and Jones Awards, which began in 2011, are open to Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, where most of the Lyric subscribers come from, and have 11 participating schools this year.
“Participation in the 2014 Buckley Awards is at an all-time high of 24 schools, and we are the first and only program nationally to accept and honor play submissions,” says Lindsey Atkinson, Associate Producer and Buckley Awards Coordinator at Casa Mañana. “While we are disappointed in the NHSMTA’s decision, schools can now participate in multiple awards programs, and we have no doubt that North Texas’ oldest program will continue to grow in our acknowledgement of excellence in high school theater programs.”
The works nominated for Best Play at the Buckleys this year range from Paul Baker’s Hamlet ESP to Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses to John Cariani’s Almost, Maine. Trinity Valley School and Keller High School both had their musical and play submissions nominated for the respective best production categories; TVS did Sweeney Todd and Metamorphoses, Keller staged Spamalot and Hamlet ESP.
DSM’s roster of participants currently includes schools as far as Abilene to the west, Midlothian and Red Oak to the south, Denton to the north and Mineola and Mabank to the east. Jordan says that in 2014-15, they expect schools as far north as the Texoma area (Sherman/Denison). Indeed, the eight nominees for Best Musical this year come from Dallas, Tarrant, Denton, Collin and Ellis counties: Colleyville Heritage HS (Seussical the Musical), Flower Mound HS (The Sound of Music), Grapevine Faith Christian School HS (Little Women), Hebron HS [Carrollton] (White Christmas), McKinney HS (Spamalot), Rowlett HS (Into the Woods), Waxahachie HS (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Wylie HS (Hairspray).
High school musical theater awards have been around for a few decades; the pioneering program is the Gene Kelly Awards in Pittsburgh, which began in 1991. In 2011, a terrific documentary, Most Valuable Player, followed several schools competing in the Freddy Awards of Lehigh Valley, an area that includes Allentown and Bethlehem, Penn., and Easton, N.J. (I interviewed the director when the movie played at the Dallas International Film Festival in Dallas in 2011.)
Although some might decry the notion of competition in the arts, such awards are no different from other competitive endeavors in high school, namely sports, a program that far and away exceeds the arts in funding at most schools in the country. That's despite the fact that the performing arts teach the same values as sports, including teamwork, focus, discipline and, especially in the case of dance, physical fitness—arts magnets like Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts use dance for their physical education requirements.
Jordan says that the competition is a positive force.
“It’s been really interesting to me that competition really does raise the standard,” he says. “I had a conversation with a teacher that was competing with us for the first time, and she was building her program from scratch. They did not have any nominations last year, but she brought the kids to see the awards show, and the kids said ‘we’re going to be up on that stage one day.’ With last year’s show, they just had two pianos; this year, the kids organized a pit band. They upped their game on the orchestra level, and on the scenery and costumes, and with the kids performing on stage, you could see a noticeable leap forward in just one year.”
In the case of Wylie High School, it has had an effect on potential funding. Now that the school has been nominated for Best Musical, school administrators have become more interested and there is a movement to increase funding for the high school theater department on the city’s next bond package.
“We're seeing repeated examples where [the awards have] has resulted in real, practical benefits for the schools in the community,” Jordan says.
That’s something that anyone who loves the arts can cheer.
» Dallas Summer Musicals' High School Musical Theater Awards are Wednesday, April 30 at the Fair Park Music Hall
» Casa Manana’s Betty Lynn Buckley Awards are Thursday, May 22 at Casa Mañana Theatre in Fort Worth
» Lyric Stage’s Schmidt and Jones Awards are Friday, May 23 at the Irving Arts Center