For many of the students participating in this year’s Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards, it will be their first time performing at such a prominent event. Some of them also hope that it’s not their last time doing so.
Designed as a way to honor the best of musical theater across the state, the annual awards — also known as the Shuler Hensley Awards — celebrate a milestone this year. It’s the 10th anniversary of the awards show, with a record number of schools participating. The event is named after Shuler Hensley, the Tony Award-winning performer, who is now back living in the area. As in years past, he will host the show, as well as participate in the opening and closing numbers.
This year, the event has a fresh face as its coordinator. Sarah Clay Lindvall is new in the position, having started six months ago as the director of arts education and community outreach for ArtsBridge Foundation, which presents the event. Throughout the year, she facilitates and plans field trips and master classes and works with arts educators, but her central focus is the awards ceremony, held at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center and broadcast live by GPB tonight at 7 p.m.
Lindvall grew up in Atlanta and eventually moved to New York. There she served, among other roles, as a music educator and drama director at an all-girls prep school in Manhattan. She was able to build the school’s first dramatic arts program and directed their musical productions, most recently Little Women.
When she moved back with her husband last year and looked into the possibilities of what she could do in musical theater, this seemed right up her alley. “I had heard of the awards, but I had no idea the Georgia region was so large,” she says. “This didn’t exist when I was in high school. I’ve learned about them now — in a big way.”
Since its inception in 2009, the Shulers have worked with more than 42,000 students from 120 schools and 38 counties in the state. This year, 75 schools from 29 Georgia counties have enrolled in the program, and 38 of them received nominations. Involvement has increased 575 percent since the first year, when only 13 schools participated.
The Shuler Ensemble will involve 120 students, and the nominated Best Actors and Actresses get to perform as well. In all, the Shulers will hand out awards in 17 categories — and the winning Best Actor and Best Actress move on to the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, the Jimmy Nederlander Awards, presented by the Broadway League Foundation in New York over the summer.
The shows nominated for best production this year are Calhoun High School’s Bring it On The Musical, Greenbrier High School’s The Drowsy Chaperone, Milton High School’s Cabaret, West Forsyth High School’s Bullets Over Broadway and two versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, produced by both South Forsyth High School and The Artios Academies of Sugar Hill.
The 2018 theme is a flashback in honor of the 10th anniversary. The opening song will be a medley of numbers that have been performed in the past, and the closing number will be a parody of A Chorus Line’s “One” titled “Ten.” Alumni will also be returning for the evening.
The airing of the event has made a seismic impact on its reach. “The audience members that are watching us may have never seen us before,” says Lindvall. “Because we are live, we might be reaching people who have no idea that this level of high quality musical theater is going on across the state. It might actually inspire someone to get involved, whether it’s a student, faculty or a parent.”
Although he will be at the event, Hensley’s schedule won’t allow him to make the rehearsals. Nonetheless, he’s been checking in consistently to make sure things are running smoothly. “He is so passionate about having musical theater as an educational tool for students,” says Lindvall. “He has been involved from the get-go. He truly loves this event and loves being around the students, inspiring them to go on and follow their dreams. He is so down to earth with every student he deals with. I think they feel they see a part of themselves in him, and he sees a part of himself in them. They are able to relate to each other in a way that is special.”
2015’s Best Actor Shuler winner Nick Eibler, a West Forsyth High School student who won for his role in Nice Work If You Can Get It, went to the Jimmy Awards the following summer with his best friend McKenzie Kurtz (that year’s Best Actress winner for Mount Paran’s Mary Poppins), and later that fall he enrolled at Texas State University, where he is studying musical theater. Now a junior, he’s had the chance to appear in several productions already. He’s been involved in musical theater his entire life and plans to move to New York after he graduates.
He lauds the Shulers for introducing him to fellow performers and convincing him he could pursue his love of theater. “I got to participate all four years,” he says. “I got to meet students from around the state. Everyone is into celebrating the work others have done. For a lot of students it’s the pinnacle of your high school experience. Even if you don’t win, it’s a confirmation that you belong in this world and you need to continue.”
Eibler won’t be able to attend this year’s event — he is directing a version of Doubt now — but will be eagerly rooting on a fellow family member. His sister Maddie is nominated for her choreography in Bullets Over Broadway. “I am so happy for her,” he said. “She has put in so much hard work, and it’s a great capstone for her to be nominated.”