(PHOTO at right: students from the six schools nominated for Best Choreography in the 2009 Gene Kelly Awards receive their medallions on May 6. Matt Polk picture.)
This year, the 19th since Pittsburgh CLO started the Kellys, there's a further wrinkle. As we first reported at length last summer (read the background here), the CLO and the Nederlander Organization (the Avis of Broadway landlords, and a cross-country theatrical power) have started the National High School Musical Theater Awards -- which, rendered simoply as the ol' NHSMTA doesn't exactly fall trippingly off the tongue, so it's just as well that they've presumed on the familiarity that should come with recognition and named the awards The Jimmys, after one of the masters of Broadway, James M. Nederlander.
As a result, this year's Best Actor and Best Actress winners, announced at the Kellys May 23 gala, will go to New York to compete against the winners of 15 other regional contests. (Unfortunately, unlike the August Wilson Monologue Contest, which held its national finals at Broadway's August Wilson Theatre, the Jimmys finals won't be at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, where I'm seeing "Guys and Dolls" tomorrow night, but at the Skirball Center at NYU. It just doesn't sound the same. But it's still the Big Apple.)
Of the other 15 regional programs involved, all of which started by adopting the model pioneered by CLO, four are named like the Kellys for native musical theater favorites: Tommy Tune (Houston), Betty Buckley (Fort Worth), John Raitt (Fullerton, Cal.) and Shuler Hensley (Atlanta). Other cities are San Diego, Kansas City, Witchita, Rochester, Raleigh, Hershey, Norwich (Conn.), Beverly (Mass.), Nyack (NY), Millburn (NJ) and La Mirada (Cal.).
(PHOTOS: Competition for the Jimmeys will be stiff, judging by these pictures of winning 2009 shows; (above) Stratford High School's "Barnum," Tommy Tune Award [Bruce Bennett photo]; and (below) Atlanta International School's "Into the Woods," Shuler Hensley Award [Ed Zeltser photo].)
All these regional competitions are run by professional theaters, most of them big musical theater companies like CLO (North Shore in Beverly, TUTS in Houston, Starlight in Kansas City), some of them big regional theaters (Old Globe in San Diego, Paper Mill Playhouse in NJ). My guess is that it's that pro theater dimension that excluded the Mancini Awards, which were initially not in the Jimmys, then in, now out. As for the Westmoreland Night of the Stars, that's ineligible because it's a showcase, not a competition.
I'm still the only big city (well, medium city) theater critic I know who regularly writes about high school shows. For that, I can thank the CLO and the Kellys. I found myself doing a bit of a rant at last week's American Theatre Critics Association conference about the value of covering high school musicals, which includes publishing the Kelly Critics online, all as a way of encouraging the theater audiences, not to mention the performers, of the future -- and at the same time, covering theater that really matters to readers and also getting kids to read newspapers.
And here's a thought: Now that this national competition is an add-on to the two best-actor Kelly awards, the CLO should consider adding another step to the judging -- i.,e., for the six best actor and six best actress nominees, add a one-day workshop in Pittsburgh, with evaluations by the mentors added to the Kelly judges scores to choose the winners. After all, we want to send the two strongest representatives to NY, and the regular Kelly judging is inevitably tied closely to the vagaries of specific schools and shows.
Coming tomorrow in this space: spending four hours (yesterday) with the Tony nominees.