Dallas — “Theater is important.”
Poignant words from the podium at the Music Hall at Fair Park last Thursday night (May 18), as two-time Tony Award-nominee Stark Sands (also a Dallas native) accepted the 2017 Leah & Jerome M. Fullinwider Award at the Sixth Annual Dallas Summer Musicals High School Musical Theatre Awards. Originating the Broadway roles of Charlie Price in Kinky Boots and Tunny in American Idiot, the Highland Park graduate had more wisdom to share after performing “Soul of a Man.”
“Have fun, but work hard. Take advantage of every opportunity, and put the time in.”
This marked my fourth time covering the awards for TheaterJones. It’s my favorite event of the year, and every show highlights a new reason why it’s the most significant thing DSM does. Volumes have been written on the importance of theater in shaping ideas and transforming audiences, but what struck me this year is how the events of the evening read like a bullet list of why involvement in theater (and all the performing arts) matters during the formative years.
Young men and women from schools around North Texas and beyond converged on the Hall, which held over 3000 attendees that night. It’s the end of the school year, so academic obligations are winding down, but in the midst of learning, rehearsing and producing their shows, they still had to pass math and history in addition to any work and family duties. Theater teaches time management skills.
Newly hired DSM President Ken Novice naturally thinks theater is important, which is what brought him to Dallas with an impressive résumé under his belt. “The people, the board, the staff of Dallas Summer Musicals are so committed and passionate about theater, and that’s why I came here. I felt that excitement about doing great work for the city, doing these educational programs, and bringing the best programming in.”
DSM and their donors prove their commitment to helping young people succeed through the arts through an increased scholarship program. At the awards, ten students planning to major in a field outside theater and music received $1,000 Ambassador scholarships, five students majoring in any area of theater accepted $5,000 scholarships each, and the winner of Best Leading Actress/Actor were each granted $10,000 towards their college education. North Texas is the only region in the country to offer that amount to the top winners. Another distinction the organization holds is that it’s the only one to offer a college audition workshop for its regional participants.
The numbers grow even more impressive. Each year, more schools throw their hats into the ring, and the sphere of influence expands. Abilene and Waco sent schools again this year, but for the first time, Lubbock and southern Oklahoma joined the party. In all, 78 productions were judged, 76 schools competed, and 43 of them received nominations. The finale number (repeating last year’s “Stronger” from Finding Neverland) featured a record 102 students, which gave choreographer Penny Ayn Maas quite a task to undertake but one she completed beautifully.
Bullet point number two: the arts teaches problem-solving skills.
Another hallmark of the program is one that director Tracy Jordan mentions every year. In fact, he and I had a good laugh about the same answer he gives when I ask his thoughts on the annual crop of contestants.
“Well, it’s a cliché to say that this is the best year yet, but it really is true. We are amazed each year, particularly as we see our best actor and actress, how the level of competition steps up. It gets tighter and stronger. All of them are doing professional level work.”
Over the years, Jordan has consistently used the term professional to describe these young people, which requires an immense amount of time and work on their part. Third on the list: theater instills dedication and a drive to work hard at what you do.
That dedication could be seen in every facet of the evening’s show. Patterned after the Tony awards, the named nominees receive red-carpet treatment before awards are presented for sixteen categories. Ron Corning of WFAA emceed again (as is now the custom) and Mark Brymer conducted and provided musical arrangement. Even with increased participation, positive changes were made over last year that resulted in a quicker, smoother-running production.
With the largest regional program in the Texas and the second largest in the country, each awards event delivers astonishing talent. A medley of Wicked tunes introduced those nominated for Best Featured Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, and Best Leading Actor/Actress.
Then the winners of each category were announced, as DSM honored achievements in performance and production. Because so many schools participated, this year brought the addition of Honorable Mentions for each category, a way to recognize schools that are showing excellent work but didn’t quite make it to the top this year. The range in categories for which these schools are recognized brings up two more items.
These students learn versatility. Being able to sing like Julie Andrews or rattle off lines like a Shakespearean actor are remarkable achievements, but add to that the knowledge of production design, construction, publicity, logistics and management, and our young performing artists have a solid sets of skills in their toolbox that easily transfer to other fields.
Next, it takes a well-oiled village to birth a musical. Theater teaches teamwork and cooperation skills, and out of this springs a heartfelt camaraderie.
Scattered between the awards were segments from the Best Musical nominees. Audience members traveled on a journey through the plains of Oklahoma! (Flower Mound HS) to the barrios of New York (Plano East, In the Heights). Patrons went under the sea with Guyer HS (The Little Mermaid), to the halls of 1980s high school in J.J.Pearce’s Heathers, and even further back in time to the 1920s with Byron Nelson HS in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Grand Prairie Performing Arts brought us to the corporate world in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Southwest Christian took us, well, everywhere with Big Fish.
Notice the diversity of themes, characters and places? Sixth point—the arts imbue an appreciation for other cultures and ideas.
Flower Mound swept the awards that night, garnering 15 nominations and winning six, including Best Musical. After their win, Matthew Spretz echoed Sands’ comments from earlier.
“We’re shocked, still in disbelief, but very thankful for the recognition we’ve received. We’re thankful for our directors and the countless hours everyone put into it. What you put in is what you get.”
He also illustrates the previous point when asked what theater means to him. “I really love being able to step into someone’s shoes even for an hour or two, to understand the world as that character sees it. I think if everyone tried to do that a little bit in their own ways, the world would be a better place.”
While the musical segments prove to be stunning spectacles, the highlight of the evening tends to be the Best Leading Actor/Actress medleys. Not only do the winners of those categories get the awesome scholarship, but they receive an all-expense paid trip to New York City for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards.
Standouts among the guys include Trevor Norris from J.J. Pearce, Plano Senior’s Max Kuenzer, John Frederickson (last year’s winner) of Guyer, Plano East’s Zach Thomas.
It was déjà vu when the winner was announced, because Frederickson won again for his role as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. He approached the podium sobbing, and many in the audience were in tears as well.
Later, he gushed, “I’m just so unbelievably blessed and overwhelmed with excitement to be able to represent DSM again, to represent the fellas I was performing with tonight. Each and every one of them deserves to be there, and I just want to make everyone proud.” A senior this year, he’ll join 2015 Best Actor Chris Clark at Texas State.
The ladies were up next, with Malana Wilson (Guyer), Shelby Priddy (Mansfield), and Kathleen Murray (Independence) delivering exceptional performances. Also impressive were the dueling Millies. Byron Nelson’s Kaylee Langford and Frenship’s Erika Johnson were nominated for the same role in their respective school’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, so their solos were arranged as a competition.
The competition was obviously fierce in this category, but Priddy won for her portrayal of Jo March in Little Women. After the show, the TCU-bound senior was still in shock over hearing her name.
“I dropped to the floor. I couldn’t process it until I felt my co-stars’ arms around me as they were saying, ‘Shelby, Shelby, you won!’”
The winners also revealed the favorite aspects of their characters and any challenges they faced, which exemplifies list item #7. Involvement in the performing arts fosters healthy risk-taking to overcome obstacles.
Frederickson said, “Originally I had challenges with grasping the character and issues getting into the posture, staying in that mindset.”
Priddy, who will be going to NYC for the first time this June, loved the defiant, independent nature of Jo March, but she confessed that the vocals were challenging.
Obviously, both found a way to overcome, which as the finale song reminds us, makes us stronger. That’s the power of the performing arts. They transform the artist as much as the audience.
For a full list of winners and nominees, go here.