7 Days With the Most Talented Theater Teens in the Country

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For a certain group of musical theater fans, Christmas comes in June.

This Christmas has everything yours does. It has beloved songs. It has lights. It has pageantry. It bestows gifts. It involves pilgrimages across great distances. It is the Jimmy Awards, and it is the most wonderful time of the year.

“What are the Jimmy Awards?” you ask, like an innocent child.

Short answer? They are the high-school Tonys.

Long answer? Founded in 2009, the National High School Musical Theatre Awards spotlight and celebrate the best of the best in high-school musical theater. There are now 40 participating regions across the nation; each of these chapters hosts its own awards ceremony, selecting one actor and one actress to represent the region on the national stage in New York City at the Jimmy Awards. (The Jimmy Awards are so called not because of the ubiquity of Thoroughly Modern Millie in high schools circa 2009, but because of legendary theatre owner-producer James M. Nederlander, a passionate advocate for arts education and funding until his death in 2016). Participating students are flown to New York for a week; they stay in the dorms at New York University, and rehearse every day in the Tisch building. The show itself takes place at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre, where the nominees perform in group numbers throughout the first act — half of them in featured medleys, half of them in a larger production number. During the intermission, a judging panel of respected theater artists select eight finalists to present solos. From these solo performances two winners — one male-identifying actor and one female-identifying actor — are determined.

Let’s rewind to those medleys, though, because they have rightfully gained a cult following over the years. Each Jimmys participant is nominated based on a specific performance they have given in their school show that year. But this poses a question: How could these wildly varied shows and roles be represented on the same night without the show becoming The Jimmys: Millennium Approaches and The Jimmys: Perestroika? The medleys are the highly addictive solution. Half of the students are split into four groups — two groups of Best Performance by an Actor nominees, two groups of Best Performance by an Actress nominees. Each group performs a ten-minute medley, with everyone dressed in their costumes from their respective award-winning roles, during which the nominees get to re-create their performances for about a minute or so. Here’s the kicker, though: Throughout each section of the medleys, the other nominees dance and sing backup for each other. This means you are getting Dolly Gallagher Levi doing Fosse isolations to “All That Jazz.” This means you are getting the Phantom of the Opera gleefully bouncing with his hands on his knees for “Luck Be a Lady.” The Jimmys medleys are musical-theater crossover heaven, carefully arranged and conducted by mad genius music director Michael Moricz. As an author of online Sweeney Todd/Les Misérables fanfiction (it was in middle school and has been wiped from the internet), your faithful writer is obsessed with them.

The group rehearsing the opening number at Tisch. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

The obsession got up close and personal this year, though, as the Jimmy Awards opened themselves up to allow for a visitor. Enter me, Natalie Walker, former nightmare theater teen as documented in the Stagedoor Manor tell-all Theater Geek, current nightmare theater adult as documented in my ranking of Broadway theaters. Who better to go behind the scenes of the Jimmys? Who better to serve as a cautionary tale? I received the golden ticket to a week of Jimmys glory, and kept a diary of the experience. It was just as if I were back at theater camp writing home to my parents every day, only with 90 percent less complaining about being cast as “Squeegee Man” instead of Maureen in Rent: School Edition.

MONDAY ORIENTATION DAY

EVENING: I pace back and forth outside the NYU Tisch building, about to head into orientation for the 10th Annual National High School Musical Theatre Awards. I made it! A full decade too late, but I made it! Managing to sweep away any vestigial trauma I may or may not carry with me as a Tisch alum, I head into the enormous rehearsal studio Jimmys participants will call home for the next week. There is a call board with sign-in sheets, schedules, and lists of guest speakers and coaches; there are so many pizzas, only half of which will be consumed (tomato sauce is bad for acid reflux! No one wants to be the Ashlee Simpson of the Jimmy Awards); there are chaperones hovering …

And then there are the kids. Or — as I quickly learn they are to be called — the nominees. Hordes of them, some milling about and hobnobbing, some sitting and silently awaiting the official start of the proceedings, some who have been here before, greeting the staff adoringly. They are all wearing bright-red T-shirts identifying them as nominees, and I realize in this moment that I will sadly not be able to go undercover as a fellow teen in the Never Been Kissed/Miss Congeniality/Camp mash-up of my fantasies. My lack of a red T-shirt is the SOLE thing preventing my passing myself off as a Jimmys nominee. It is NOT that I am “not talented enough” NOR is it the fact that I have looked 35 since junior high (devastatingly confirmed for me when a High School Musical 2 casting director scouting my theater camp told a staff member that at 15, I looked too old to play a high-school student).

A man hops up in front of the group, bidding them all welcome as an Al Hirschfeld caricature of James Nederlander looms over his shoulder. This is Van Kaplan, co-founder of the National High School Musical Theatre Awards program, director of the Jimmy Awards show, and executive producer of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. His cohort in this endeavor stands beside him — Kiesha Lalama, choreographer. They have been a team since the Jimmys began, and their decade of collaboration shines through in their rapport. “I’m the good cop, she’s the bad cop,” Kaplan jokes.

Kent Gash, head of the NYU Tisch New Studio for Musical Theater (a partner in the NHSMTA program), enters to welcome the nominees on behalf of NYU, and to offer a bit of a Debbie Allen in Fame vibe to the proceedings. “You think you are here to have fun,” Gash announces, methodically scanning the room. “You are here to work.” And pay! In sweat!

The finalists introduce themselves by name, hometown, and the role and show that landed them here. Three Bakers. Two Millie Dillmounts (Millies Dillmount?). Two Eponines, one of whom is in a backwards baseball cap — on brand, as this seems to be the contemporary version of a gamine waif in a newsboy cap. Two Archibald Cravens, one of whom has a very real British accent that sends a wave of swoons (followed by self-conscious giggles) across the room. It is possible that some perceive this authentic dialect as a disappearance into character, because his introduction seems to initiate an unspoken agreement that any person nominated for their performance as a Brit will state their role in that accent (e.g. “E-loy-zah Dooo’li’uhl,” “the Aht-ful Doodgah”).

The talk wraps up, and the nominees are dismissed to go over the music for the opening number. The room erupts in hoots and hollers, but out of the corner of my eye, I spot one boy self-consciously pausing mid-“WOO” to place a protective hand over his throat. Yes, yes, sweet cherub, the time has indeed come to set aside childish things.

TUESDAY STAGING THE OPENING NUMBER

AFTERNOON: “I don’t make these mistakes, so someone has to be in the wrong place,” choreographer Kiesha Lalama says in her low, gravelly voice, cutting through a cacophony of pingy forward mixes. Sensing the general confusion in the room, she levels with everyone: “Look, I’m insane. If your hand is here” — she holds her hand with palm facing outward — “when it should be here” — she turns it inward a fraction of an inch — “I’m gonna move it. Because it bothers me. But you’ll thank me when you see the video on YouTube.”

This reference to YouTube is a crucial reminder of the immense pressure the nominees are under, and how much of that pressure extends to the adults putting the show together. Lalama has to be as exacting as she is because with great power comes great responsibility, and with the heightened visibility the internet has offered the Jimmy Awards comes the very real potential for very public embarrassment. These Jimmys nominees have grown up with social media, and their awareness of social media’s potential to make or break someone is acute. Every few weeks, it seems, there’s a new viral video of an incredible young singer and a success story to go along with it. A recent example: Tiffany Mann, whose rendition of Waitress 11 o’clock number “She Used to Be Mine” at Ellen’s Stardust Diner led her to join the cast of that show on Broadway (she will soon steal scenes in Be More Chill, the cult hit musical whose Off Broadway run this summer is in and of itself a testament to the power of young people on social media). On the flip side of that, however, there is the chance to become the latest meme of failure. Everybody wants to be an “OMG GOALS”, nobody wants to be an “lol … me.” Protecting these young people means preparing the hell out of them. Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch… AGAIN.

Students take a break during rehearsal. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

EVENING: A staff member walks across the room carrying a Duane Reade bag overflowing with snacks. Every eye goes to this Dorito cornucopia. A mirage in the desert.

Lalama is quiet as she ponders her next move. Her contemplative silence so rattles and unsettles the room that, apropos of nothing, one boy blurts out “I’m sorry!” She powers through more choreography — a particularly involved section of “Last Dance” that asks for all 80 performers to execute the same dance combination with staggered starts among six sections, creating a waterfall effect that could be very impressive if done well, but currently looks like an anarchic mass of gangly limbs flailing about. Lalama drills it again and again, watching as students get the choreography once, then so overindulge in the hubris of getting it once that they forget it completely the next time. A half-motivation, half-threat to anyone who might be thinking they can wiggle their way out of learning it if she abandons the idea, she announces to the room, “I’m not giving up on this!”

From the back line — the ancestral home of my people, the Non-Dancers — comes a small voice, hopeful and firm. “Neither are we!”

The room explodes with applause.

WEDNESDAY FIELD TRIP

EVENING: Tonight is the nominees’ field trip day, which means I finally will be able to talk to them a bit without disrupting The Process. They are taking in an early dinner at Sardi’s before seeing Dear Evan Hansen. This is the first time I am seeing all of them in street clothes, and some of them are nigh unrecognizable to me. Rehearsal attire is the Great Equalizer — everyone looks roughly the same in sweats, yoga pants, and T-shirts. Out on the town, the group runs the sartorial gamut from A to Z, or from 13 to 33.

Tiyanna Gentry, a spitfire from Nashville, Tennessee, nominated for the Witch in Into the Woods, holds court in a caped jumpsuit and a jeweled ear cuff. A. Caped. Jumpsuit. And. A. Jeweled. Ear. Cuff. I am almost too intimidated to approach her, but when we chat, she is warm and open. “I can’t believe I get to be here,” she says wistfully. “There aren’t a lot of these opportunities where I’m from. I just wanna soak everything up. I wanna learn everything I can learn.” She begins crying. I begin crying. It’s a lot for a Wednesday happy hour where I haven’t even been drinking.

Veronica Ballejos (a Millie Dillmount representing San Jose, California) is here in New York for the very first time, and she is refreshingly, charmingly honest about feeling out of place: “I’m not good at making new friends, but … I’m trying!” she laughs. “Even the guy who won with me from my region, I didn’t know him at all — I still really don’t know him — so it’s kinda awkward. I don’t know anybody at all, but … I’m trying!” Such is the plight of the shy theater kid.

On the opposite end of the socializing spectrum is Darian Goulding, here from Chicago for his role as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. He exudes a confidence I know well, for it is the confidence of the Musical Theater Straight. He will re-create his Beast in a medley, and he shows me photos on his phone of the elaborate costume he brought from home. “The horns are intense,” he says. “I got stopped by airport security on the way here because of them.”

Lunch break. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

Nobody — and I mean nobody — seems concerned with hookups or crushes, in a real departure from what I remember about high-school theater. They all have eyes on the prize — or, to be less cynical, eyes on The Experience. Every nominee I broach the subject with offers some variation of “I’m focusing on my career right now.”

The nominees start filing out of Sardi’s to ensure they arrive at the Music Box with plenty of time to spare. I stick around at the grown-ups’ table (an entirely foreign experience; I am not even allowed there at my family Thanksgivings) with Kaplan and Lalama. Though Kaplan described their dynamic as “good cop/bad cop” at orientation, the actual vibe I get from them is a platonic version of Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts in Lady Bird. She is “scary and warm,” he is affable and and softer-spoken — they share a wicked sense of humor and an immense respect for one another. Their rapport is never alienating, always inviting, and initial concerns they may have had about my intentions as an interloper seem to melt away as I clarify that I might be the Jimmy Awards No. 1 fan.

Close to midnight, my No. 1 Jimmys fan status is threatened by a voice note message I receive from Taylor Trensch (current titular star of Dear Evan Hansen and a friend of mine), who is fresh out of his post-show talkback with the young nominees.“I may be mistaken — correct me if I’m wrong — but I think I saw Sweeney Todd No. 1 from last year’s Jimmys in the audience today at the Q&A. Have you happened to clock him? And if so, what show is he representing this year? And if it’s not him … that’s … a shame, honestly.” I check the list of nominees to see if this is correct, because I am ashamed to say I had not clocked him, but dammit, Taylor is right — Max Pink (none other than the British Archibald Craven from orientation!) is indeed one of the dueling Sweeney Todds from the 2017 Jimmys. I beg Taylor to let me mention his Jimmys obsession here, stressing that I can vaguely refer to him as “a cast member” if he’d like. He instantaneously replies: “Please out me.”

THURSDAY MEDLEYS REHEARSAL

AFTERNOON: I WATCH THE STAGING OF TWO MEDLEYS TODAY. Knowing I am going to see the girls go over their solo songs on Saturday, I decide to watch the boys’ block.

“You’re not doing anything right now,” Lalama says to one boy as he rehearses his solo. “During this part, I had a cane,” he responds. “Did you bring it?” she asks. He shakes his head sheepishly. They’ve all brought their costumes, but props can be forgotten! Their stage managers can’t follow them everywhere! Alternate choreography is worked out, but only after the room becomes the Key & Peele sweating sketch for a few minutes.

Emily Escobar, age 18, rehearsing her performance of “Toffee” from Zombie Prom. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

Lalama lays down the law as the first group leaves, assigning two-time Jimmys nominee Mark Mitrano (a Quasimodo from Rochester, New York) as dance captain. “I can sense when there’s danger for power struggles. You all listen to Mark. You have questions about the choreography, you defer to Mark. He’s a dancer and a half, and he’s been here before. He knows what I am thinking.” Mark’s eyes go wide. He seems simultaneously flattered and terrified.

EVENING: The second group of boys enter the rehearsal studio. You have never seen so many scarves in the month of June. Reboot Smash so these boys can costume Debra Messing. I soon understand why: this group is SING. ING. And they need to PROTECT. THE. LARYNX. AT. ALL. COSTS. There are huge power ballads in this group — “If I Can’t Love Her” from Beauty and the Beast, “Lily’s Eyes” from Secret Garden, “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” from Light in the Piazza — and though it is stressed to them that they need to save their voices, they seem too excited to show off for each other to heed this advice for longer than eight measures of music.

Luckily, they have people looking out for their vocal needs and stresses — as I leave, I run into a chaperone about to make a convenience-store run to refill the supply of Throat Coat tea and Slippery Elm lozenges. Every downtown Duane Reade is quaking.

FRIDAY PRESS REHEARSAL/COACHINGS

MORNING: Press day! Sandy Kenyon, nasal-voiced siren of TaxiTV, is here, and every time I catch sight of him in my peripheral vision I have to double-check that I am not drunk in a cab. The group is running through the opening number when I arrive. They will proceed to run it so many times that our photographer, Mark Abramson, a sweet young man with a distinctly heterosexual energy who has never heard any of the songs before (allegedly not even “Let It Go”), leaves singing a pitch-perfect “I’d Rather Be Me” from Mean Girls.

AFTERNOON: Students prep their solo pieces with their coaches for the final time. I sneak into a group session led by Howard McGillin, a record-holder for most performances as the title role in Phantom of the Opera. His enthusiasm for the nominees is infectious, and his notes are simple, effective, and beautiful: After a plaintive rendition of “The Beauty Is” performed by Mya Ison (here from Durham, North Carolina, nominated for her performance as Sarah in Ragtime), he stands and offers, “Why not — at the very end — embrace the world?”

Mya Ison, age 18 and Laughton Berry, age 18. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

SATURDAY SOLOS REHEARSAL

MORNING: Today the nominees rehearse their solos — the songs they have chosen in the event that they are one of the eight performers selected to move onto the final round of judging. The scarves have multiplied; there seem to be more scarves than human beings now. The scarves will soon gain sentience. I look forward to serving my soft-knit overlords. They can expect my full cooperation and obedience in the revolution to come.

The theater is filled with the dull roar of 80 teens making jokes loud enough to drown out their terror. Kaplan shouts, “QUIET!” Slight decrescendo. “… SAVE YOUR VOICES!” Total silence. We begin. One by one, the girls are to stand up, walk in an arc (the arc is very important) to the front of the stage, introduce themselves, and sing their hearts out for two minutes. It is 9:45 in the a.m. and these young women are BELTING. They are CRYING WHILE BELTING. They are OFFERING OPERATIC HIGH Cs IN THE MIDST OF BELTING.

Only one Gimme Gimme” and one Astonishing.” Wow, the times, they are a-changin’. (I hope one day someone sings a Bob Dylan song and introduces it as a selection from The Times, They Are A-Changin’.) No One Else” from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is the runaway hit of the year, with four young women choosing it as their solo. Three nominees choose “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me, because these young ladies are shrewd, and they know what a great story it would be if they got to sing this song for this year’s Jimmys host, Laura Benanti, Broadway’s most recent Amalia Balash.

A media coach gave a presentation while the students ate lunch in the lobby of the Minskoff. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

Annabelle Duffy (a Tracy Turnblad from Schenectady, New York) is asked to redo her entrance before she begins singing. And again. And … one last time? “I can’t put my finger on it, but I just feel like you’re mad at me!” Kaplan explains. “OH! Yes, sure. That’s the RBF,” Duffy replies. The nominees giggle quietly. Moments later, Lalama doubles over with laughter; Kaplan looks at her, confused, until she collects herself enough to translate: “Van, she’s saying she has resting bitch face.”

AFTERNOON: At the start of the rehearsal, a staff member placed a chair as a barrier between the grown-ups and the nominees. By afternoon, though, one boy has snuck into this chair unnoticed, with his Chuck Taylors kicked up on the railing in front of him. A Jimmys bad boy, to be sure.

SPEAKING OF THE BOYS! Three hours into this endeavor, with nine female nominees still left to sing, the male nominees must be dismissed for their lunch break, since their solo session starts in just an hour. A few boys linger to support their fellow nominees, but chaperones swiftly return to make sure they have time to eat.

SUNDAY PRELIMINARY JUDGING

On Sunday, nominees perform in front of the judging panel. The eight finalists will be determined based partly on their scores from this evaluation and partly on their performances in the live show tomorrow night. No extra bodies are allowed in the hallowed rehearsal hall, and I am sadly about as superfluous to this process as a person can possibly be.

By nightfall, I am experiencing empty nest syndrome.

The boys dressing room before the performance. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

MONDAY SHOWTIME

[For the sake of my already-tenuous grasp on sanity, the following diary entry must now include timestamps, because I live 1,000 lifetimes within this day. If the television program 24 bore any resemblance to this 24 hours, I would have watched and enjoyed the television program 24.]

9:58 a.m.: I arrive at the Minskoff Theatre bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and disturbingly caffeinated, because thanks to the disorganization of any and all midtown Starbucks locations, I have gotten two large coffees for the price of one. Time to rehearse. The 80 nominees walk onto a Broadway stage together (most of them for the first time ever), and I cry alone (for the first time today).

11:30 a.m.: Lunch break. The nominees performing in medleys are now wearing costume accessories with their rehearsal clothing — Dolly Levi stares out the window in her red feathered hat and sweatpants; Sister Mary Robert from Sister Act goes live on Instagram in her habit.

2:30 p.m.: Nerves fray as the day progresses. Tiyanna (whose name my phone has begun autocorrecting to Rihanna, for it recognizes an icon in the making) emerges from her medley tech feeling pressure to dial down the intensity of her “Stay With Me” performance because of an issue hearing the orchestra. She muses, “I have to sing it powerful. My vibrato, I just let it run, because that’s where the vulnerability comes in — when I let my vibrato run free.” No quote has ever meant enough to me to tattoo on my body until I heard “I let my vibrato run free.”

6:50 p.m.: The girls are laser-focused in a dressing room that they have transformed into a museum of irons both curling and flat. The chaos is individualized and contained; both manic and focused. The boys are more casual in a mens’ dressing room that is naturally a shrine to Beyoncé, Britney, Mariah, and other highly venerated saints of the gay agenda. They cajole each other into various impressions — Darian Goulding does a pitch-perfect Brian d’Arcy James; Sevon Askew (a Nashville, Tennessee, nominee for his El Gallo in The Fantasticks) does a conceptualized interpretation of Liza Minnelli’s ever-slowing vibrato on the final note of “New York, New York,” hinting at comedic gifts not called upon in his tender “Try to Remember.” Then a voice pipes up behind me: “I can do John Legend!” I turn and find diminutive sophomore (!!!) Andrew Barth Feldman from New York City. Long ago, I made a promise to myself and to society to never let a man get away with doing bad impressions, and I am concerned that I will be tested today, as Feldman is so sweet I do not think I could bring myself to shoot him down. I needn’t have worried — Feldman proceeds to shock the hell out of me with a spot-on re-creation of Legend’s “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar Live. Late in the game, he shoots to the top of my “ones to watch” list.

“Don’t make me cry too hard — I am very fragile,” I plead as I head to the door, but I am a devout enough follower of Stephen Sondheim to know that though the children do listen, they will not obey.

7:35 p.m.: SHOWTIME. The medleys go off without a hitch — they will soon be available to watch online, but I would have to say the highlight is Teah Renzi of New Haven, Connecticut, giving us an “I’ve only been PRETENDING” Eponine option-up for the ages.

The students gather on the stairs before the show. Photo: Mark Abramson for Vulture

A huge production number featuring the 40 nominees who did not perform in the smaller medleys closes the first act, and this year’s is an extended paean to that plucky underdog the Walt Disney Company, taking us on an “It’s a Small World”–style journey through their Broadway shows. Sabrina Astle, a saucer-eyed gazelle here representing La Mirada, California, for her portrayal of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, steps to the front of the stage. She is supposed to deliver a few spoken lines introducing a section from Mary Poppins. She begins confidently, but derails as she tries to remember the names of the show’s writers, particularly, it seems, lyricist George Stiles. “Written by George … by George … Clooney,” she says, simply trying to get any words out so she can change course. “This next … um, adaptation, of Mary Poppins, combined … combined … this next thing of…” She begins to fade back, then shakes her head and says one more time — mostly to herself, in utter bewilderment — “George … Clooney.” It is perhaps the most “I kinda misunderstood the assignment” moment I have ever seen live, and it is wrenching.

But then, something wonderful happens.

All collectively remembering what it is to be 17 — to be so completely sure of yourself one moment and totally unmoored the next — the audience applauds her. Applauds her for injecting a moment of genuine humanity into a section of the show that, by its nature, feels a bit impersonal. Applauds her for staying onstage, for going back to her spot and going right back into the choreography, when I think even the most confident among us could easily imagine fleeing the scene of the perceived crime to go throw up in the wings. A 45-second eternity later, she is at the front of the stage again, singing “Part of Your World” with the rest of the female ensemble. She is beaming. She is triumphant.

9:38 p.m.: Host Laura Benanti enters at the top of the second act, and immediately addresses the watercooler moment of the first. “George Clooney … has done a lot of things,” she expertly deadpans, “but he did not write Mary Poppins.”  A host delightedly referencing a backward-moving contestant’s repetition of a name? “George Clooney” is the “Miss Vanjie” of the Jimmy Awards. Benanti invites all 80 nominees back onstage for the announcement of the eight finalists. As she reads their names and hometowns, I realize I have nervously bitten my nails so far down they are bleeding. Motherhood is hard! You’ve seen Hereditary. The names called are …

Riley Thad Young (Memphis) J.R. Heckman (Cleveland). Andrew Barth Feldman (New York). Darian Goulding (Chicago). Emily Escobar (Tampa). Marisa Ines Moenho (Palm Springs). Sabrina Astle (La Mirada, California). … SABRINA! ASTLE! PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES! (I do not remember doing it, but independently of my brain, my body makes a decision to leap out of my seat. I scream a scream so guttural. It is involuntary and cathartic and I begin to wonder if this is … sports? Am I now sports?)… Renee Rapp (Charlotte, North Carolina).

By this point in the night I’m accustomed to seeing the stage populated with dozens of people and am struck by how vast it seems as each finalist enters; it feels almost gladiatorial now as they prepare to deliver the most important performances of their lives. Riley Thad Young’s “Memphis Lives in Me” from Memphis allows him both to sing from the heart about his hometown and ably riff for days, and J.R. Heckman lends sweet puppy-dog charisma to “Seven Wonders” from Catch Me If You Can. Andrew Barth Feldman sings “I Love Betsy” from Honeymoon in Vegas that has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, blowing away their expectations just as he did mine backstage a mere three hours earlier. The last of the boys is Darian Goulding, who becomes both visibly and audibly choked up during the last verse of his wildly endearing “Proud of Your Boy” from Aladdin, which he directs straight to his mother in the mezzanine.

The Jimmy Awards understand that their primary audience — though appreciative of male talent — is ultimately most invested in divas and divas in the making, so the girls perform second. Emily Escobar’s “Gorgeous” from The Apple Tree is a delight with a trilled coloratura surprise at the end. I secretly had my fingers crossed for an all “No One Else” final four for the sake of Drama, but am elated by Marisa Ines Moenho’s ethereal rendition of the Great Comet favorite. Comeback kid Sabrina Astle has chosen an eerily appropriate song in “The Life I Never Led” from Sister Act (a power ballad about finding your voice and asserting yourself), and she performs it so compellingly that friends behind me begin to speculate that she masterminded her entire story line this evening. Jet fuel can’t melt George Clooney! Finally, Renee Rapp sets the stage ablaze with a rendition of “When It All Falls Down” from Chaplin, prompting Laura Benanti to quip, “I will never be as confident as that 18-year-old”, prompting hundreds of girls watching at home to Google “chaplin the musical sheet music???” in preparation for their voice recitals and showcases, and prompting the stars of Mean Girls to collectively start sleeping with one eye open.

“How … how are they gonna choose?” Our photographer Mark is ready to tear his own hair out. We are exhausted and anxious sitting together in the audience, and I truly do not know how actual stage parents endure this! Finally — finally — the time has come to coronate teen theater royalty. The finalists are invited back onstage, and …

The eight finalists RISE from BENEATH the stage! PRODUCTION! VALUES! They are all holding hands as they emerge. I don’t know if they have been told to do this, but I like to think they just did it on their own. Or that they are scared by the movement of the elevator platform. Either/or. The crowd goes wild, then falls silent as the envelope is produced. The question now is no longer how are they gonna choose, but who are they gonna choose?

“Andrew Barth Feldman …” Andrew’s hand flies to his mouth in disbelief; Darian pats him on the back and nudges him toward the podium. As he makes his way over, you can almost hear him reminding himself how to walk. “… And Renee Rapp!” Renee has less distance to travel, but I’m close enough to notice her hands shaking. Neither have seemed younger to me than in this moment, both genuinely bewildered to have been the last two standing of 100,000 participants nationwide. They were prepared to sing. They were prepared to act. They were prepared to dance. There is no way to prepare to win.

10:48 p.m.: The after-party is at Planet Hollywood. Already teaching our future stars to move immediately from Broadway to Los Angeles? Wow, okay! Parents are everywhere. They are not allowed to interact with their kids during the lead-up to the show — smart, because one can only assume that among any group of teens who’ve played Mama Rose, there must be a real Mama Rose (or 12) lurking somewhere about. They anxiously await the nominees’ arrivals; and when those nominees do arrive? My apologies to the powers that be, but they are no longer “nominees” to me. Seeing them reunited with their families, they are absolutely kids, and my heart grows three sizes seeing them this way. I am soon not going to have room left in my body.

Lalama and Kaplan watch over the winners as they pose in front of the step-and-repeat, and they warmly receive everyone who approaches — people they are meeting for the first time, the nominees they’ve spent the whole week with, even yours truly. Lalama thanks me for my interest and support of the show, and I’ve got just enough liquid courage in me to shout, “No, thank YOU for LITERALLY EVERYTHING YOU DO!”

11:59 p.m.: It is officially past my bedtime. On my way out, I spot Veronica Ballejos (the shy young woman from the Sardi’s dinner) at a table with her family. Not even sure why — the question could go so poorly! — I ask her if she was able to come out of her shell as the week progressed. She grabs my arm excitedly, exuding a confidence that is a complete 180 from our last interaction: “Oh my gosh, YES!” she squeals. “I made so many new friends. I was so scared I wouldn’t, but … this was … the best. This was the best week of my life.” I think about her smile the whole way home.

We live in cruel times, times where sometimes it seems the only way to cope is to make ourselves numb. The Jimmy Awards are a sanctuary from that. The Jimmy Awards celebrate a group of young people with the courage to greet an increasingly uncertain — sometimes apocalyptic-seeming — future with arms outstretched. And I choose to celebrate that celebration. It is impossible to feel numb or apathetic for those few hours at the Minskoff — certainly for the 80 teens performing, but also for the adults in the audience. The Jimmys honor earnestness and effort in a society that continually extols the idea of “giving no fucks.” Not giving a fuck is boring. These young people give every fuck. They give fucks like they’ve still got a closetful of fucks at home packed up to drop off at Goodwill. You cannot try to look nonchalant while tap-dancing in a Beast costume. There is no way to be “cool” at the Jimmys. And thank God (or Sondheim, or Audra, or whatever deity to whom you may subscribe) for that. “Cool,” quite frankly, sucks. This night is not “cool.” It is extraordinary.

[To whom it may concern: Please instate the annual Sabrina Astle Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Phoenix Rising From the Ashes.]

*A version of this article appears in the July 9, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

7 Days With the Most Talented Theater Teens in the Country