It isn't prom but it feels like it. It isn't a pep rally though the high-decibel cheers may indicate otherwise. It isn't Broadway but there's glam, excitement and plenty of jazz hands.
Sure, the recent news that Kristin Chenoweth and Jim Parsons are set to co-host Tony nomination announcements in May would encourage any musical theater junkie to break out in an endless kick-ball-change sequence.
But the electric energy of high schools students on their way to Theatre Under the Stars this week — akin to a massive flash mob dance invading Hobby Center for the Performing Arts — give the professional awards ceremony a run for its money.
Move over Tonys: The 10th Annual Tommy Tune Awards for excellence in high school musicals is around the corner, set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The glossy red carpet affair is everything musical theater should be for the 500 students on stage, the 300 behind the scenes and the 2,000 or so fans cheering in the audience. Amid performances by nominated troupes and mashups of students hoping to garner titles, one of the 15 crystal trophies isn't what high schoolers are hoping to take home.
"I wanted to make Houston proud. But when I got there, I was surrounded by wonderful, supportive and passionate people so instead, I left with 49 very close friends."
What they want is one of the coveted eight scholarships — one at $5,000 and seven at $3,000 — to further their education in or outside the arts, plus a chaperoned all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to partake in the national Jimmy Awards, reserved for the first-prize winning leading actors and actresses from 25 cities.
"The character of the Baker's Wife doesn't have your normal 11 o'clock numbers," Gerachis explained, referring to the all-out musical number that traditionally closes a Broadway show. "I was initially intimated by the role, wasn't sure how to make her stand out as she's very humble.
"But once I saw the audience's reaction, I thought maybe I did produce art this time. Maybe it was her character or maybe I found something different to say. The show made me grow as an artist, but more importantly, as a person."
Gerachis' six days in New York weren't what she initially expected.
"I went into it thinking of it as a competition," she says. "I wanted to make Houston proud. But when I got there, I was surrounded by wonderful, supportive and passionate people, so instead, I left with 49 very close friends."
She plans to participate in Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama pre-college summer program, which consists of a daily regiment of classes to prepare her for college and a career in musical theater or film.
For Stephanie Gibson and Josh Brener, who took top prizes in the first Houston Tommy Tune in 2002, the experience was a step in climbing the show biz ladder. Gibson was in the national tour of A Chorus Line and Happy Days and covered a major role in Spamalot and The Addams Family on Broadway. Brener graduated from Harvard, studied at the American Repertory Theater and appeared on Glory Daze, Glee, The Big Bang Theory and House of Lies.
"When I am playing a role and when I'm totally going full out, because I am on stage, I change. My confidence has grown tremendously."
"Whenever we enter into discussions about the program, we remind ourselves that it isn't about the trophy," Bob Lawson, TUTS director of administration and education, explains. "It's about what's best for the kids."
For some, musical theater and the event helped overcome personal obstacles. Such was the case for Jacob Khalil, who won Best Supporting Actor last year.
"I used to be kind of shy as I have a few speaking problems and a stutter," Khalil told ABC 13's Don Nelson in a backstage interview. "When I am playing a role and when I'm totally going full out, because I am on stage, I change. My confidence has grown tremendously."
How it all works
The event has come a long way since its inception 10 years ago. When TUTS was moving into the Hobby Center in 2002, there was a desire to expand the company's mission to impact the community through education. They looked at programs in other cities and built on them to create somthing unique. Today, companies in Raleigh, Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte are looking at TUTS' strategy in preparing to launch their own awards.
Invitations are sent out to more than 150 public and private high schools in nine counties including Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller.
Qualifying schools are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, with the only criteria being that they must stage a musical within the judging period, between October and March. Katy, Klein and Clear Creek independent school districts consistently show strong interest.
We want people to know that they can see great theater in their own communities, whether that is with us or in Katy, The Woodlands or Klein or anywhere in Houston
This year, 44 schools participated, with 154 nominations in 15 categories and 44 potential scholarship recipients.
An army of judges made up of working industry professionals and theater educators volunteer their time — give up their lives, Lawson says — to scramble from production to production while keeping a tight lip on the progress. They assess 1) the nominees' natural ability and 2) whether smart production choices were made in relation to allocated budget.
Final evaluations are tabulated into worksheets, audited and verified by Ernst & Young — it's all serious business. Once it's all said and done, the judges' notes are sent to the schools to provide critical, yet helpful, feedback.
Final price tag? The complete bash, including administrative costs and scholarships, adds up to $150,000. While a significant amount, TUTS officials believe it's a worthwhile way to engage the community and the response has been overwhelming.
In the end
The concluding awards gala, this year hosted by Jim Bernhard and Ayana Mack, is akin to mounting another performance. New to the awards ceremony is a grand opening number and a 10th anniversary lithograph sketched by Tune, who will serve also as the presenter.
"The event is about musical theater awareness," Geneva Cisneros, TUTS assistant manager of education, says. "We want people to know that they can see great theater in their own communities, whether that is with us or in Katy, The Woodlands or Klein or anywhere in Houston."
The 10th Annual Tommy Tunes Award is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $24 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-558-8887.