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Preview: Shuler Hensley Awards, celebrating high school musicals, to air live Thursday

This is the fifth year the awards have been celebrated.
Shuler Hensley Awards
This is the fifth year the awards have been presented.

Even when he has gigs lined up in other cities for the rest of the year, Tony Award-winning actor Shuler Hensley never hesitates to come home to Atlanta for the local awards show that bears his name. Now in their fifth year, the Shuler Hensley Awards, taking place April 18 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, celebrate high school musical theater around the state.

When board members of ArtsBridge, the arts education program of the Cobb Energy Centre’s foundation, began looking to stage an annual awards show similar to the Gene Kelly Awards in Pittsburgh and the Tommy Tune Awards in Houston, they sought a local name to tie in to the event. They thought of Hensley and contacted him. The actor, who grew up in the area and attended the Westminster Schools, is a Broadway veteran who won a 2002 Tony for “Oklahoma!” He was happy to help out. “I am glad to be part of this,” he says. “It’s a guilty pleasure for me.”

High schools across the state are invited to submit entries for the Shuler Hensley Awards, also known as the Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards. Until last year, only metro Atlanta schools were allowed to participate, but in 2012 the awards were opened to schools throughout Georgia, and this year 47 high schools in 16 school systems submitted entries. That’s up from 15 schools in 2009, the first year.

Courtney Reed, ArtsBridge’s director of education and community outreach, is the show’s director. This is her third time staging the awards ceremony, a one-night event that takes half a year to plan. Much of this time is spent with the screening process. Three area judges see a show and assign it scores. At the end of the season, a round table of judges gathers to select the nominees. Six nominees are determined in each of 16 categories, ranging from technical awards to acting to overall production. Others are given honorable mentions.

The awards also provide opportunities outside of the nominations. Musical directors from every participating school can choose two students from their production to be part of the Shuler Student Ensemble, which performs during the show. And scholarships are doled out each year for high school seniors.

Performances from the schools nominated for Best Production will take place throughout the evening, as will a medley featuring the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. Students chosen for the Shuler Student Ensemble will perform the opening and closing numbers. Red-carpet ceremonies will take place before the televised show (on ME-TV, Channel 248 on Comcast and 127 on Charter) as well.

The judging takes into account the resources available to the various schools, so, in essence, the students compete more against themselves than others. “We ask, what did you do with your budget?” Reed says. “We don’t discriminate, whether the budget is $500 or $40,000.” The schools involved are a mixture of public, private and arts magnet ones, but all are capable of quality productions. “The public schools may have a drama club that rehearses with no faculty, but they do amazing work,” Reed says.

The musicals vying for Best Production this year are Atlanta International School’s “Avenue Q,” Buford High School’s “Les Miserables,” Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School’s “Once Upon a Mattress,” Milton High School’s “Spamalot,” Starr’s Mill High School’s “Urinetown” and West Forsyth High School’s “Oliver!”

The winning actor and actress will go to the National High School Musical Theater Awards in New York, also known as the Jimmy Awards. After taking home Best Actress for her work in Tri-Cities High School’s “Once on This Island” in the second year of the Shuler Awards, Alexandria Payne won the national award and received a four-year scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

For his part, Hensley will participate in some of the musical numbers and present awards with co-hosts Jovita Moore and Fred Blankenship of WSB-TV. He’s been in town this week getting ready for the ceremony.

Hensley feels that the popularity of TV shows such as “Glee” and “Smash” has made high school musical theater a hot commodity. “Without a doubt, there’s been a growth of musical theater,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve seen the tip of the mountain.” He recalls reading somewhere that high school musicals are second only to high school football in terms of turnout by students.

Performers in high school musicals rehearse a lot more than they get to perform. “For these kids, they get only about five performances,” Hensley says. “By the fifth performance, you feel you can do it and work on things. This gives them another opportunity.”

Performing in a huge arena such as the Cobb Energy Centre is an experience the students will never forget, he feels, even if they pursue a career in show business. And those who don’t will probably support the arts in the future, which is also a goal of the Shuler Awards committee.

Reed feels that the awards have become an essential tradition, showcasing the work of Georgia students and allowing them to interact and network. “The awards are so important,” she says. “This is a celebration of what schools are doing in our community so arts education can survive.”

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