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Heard of the Jimmys? It’s the Tonys, for Teenagers

One contestant, Sky Nathan Frank, 17, who attends the San Diego School of Creative & Performing Arts, said that meeting Mr. Platt was one of the highlights of his week. “Being around actors like him in New York, I can feel the energy in the streets,” Mr. Frank said.

Thanks to musicals like “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Hamilton” (and cover versions of their songs that flood the internet) Broadway seems to be having a youth boom. The Jimmys tap directly into that, while also giving its contestants a glimpse of the harsh realities of life as an actor.

While the show itself is a joyful two hours of song and dance, in the end, a panel of judges must select two top winners. Most of the contestants go back to their hometowns empty-handed, and must decide whether to throw themselves at a stage career.

It is a high-stakes affair, as old as “A Star Is Born” and as of-the-moment as “The Voice,” packed with some of the most talented students in the nation, one that had Mr. Platt beaming from the podium.

“I just need to take a moment to dwell,” he said. “These kids are in high school.”

2016 Jimmy Awards Medley #3 Video by Jimmy Awards

Going National

The idea came from Van Kaplan, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. He saw the talent coming out of Pittsburgh’s Gene Kelly Awards, a regional competition honoring high school musical theater begun in 1991, and realized that other cities were producing equally exciting young winners in their local contests.

Mr. Kaplan had the vision of taking the program national, by bringing the best actor and best actress from each region to New York for a 10-day, rigorous musical theater boot camp culminating in a two-act awards spectacular on a Manhattan stage.

Thirty-two students came to New York in 2009, the competition’s first year, held at N.Y.U., which is a partner. The theater owner and producer James Nederlander, who died last summer, came on as the main sponsor, and the awards took on his name.

“The Tonys, but for high school,” as Mr. Kaplan envisioned it, has ballooned to involve over 1,300 high schools and 50,000 students at the local level. For the first time, the finale sold out the Minskoff.

After the Broadway League stepped in to manage the national program in 2014, some 15 new regional competitions like the St. Louis High School Musical Theater Awards popped up to feed talent into the Broadway showcase. This year, 37 separate award shows around the country anointed a best actor and best actress, and sent them to live together in N.Y.U. dormitories and to learn musical numbers, complete with full choreography, at a breakneck pace.


Students practicing with Kiesha Lalama, foreground.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

No Time to Waste

The Jimmys contestants have a packed schedule from the moment they arrive in New York, starting with a demanding dance call — this year, overseen by Wayne Cilento, the original Mike in “A Chorus Line.” They then must stage opening and closing numbers, directed by Mr. Kaplan, with choreography by Kiesha Lalama, who works during the year as director of education for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

Ms. Lalama arrived at the first opening number rehearsal carrying a notebook scribbled with X’s and O’s grouped into formations. “I come from a football family, and this is how I draw dance patterns” she told the gaggle of bright-eyed high-school students standing in front of her in spandex pants and dance shoes. “Give this 150 percent!” Ms. Lalama shouted, as the students prepared to run through the number again.

The opening number is always a cheeky mega-mix of contemporary Broadway hits woven together with aplomb by the musical director Michael Moricz. This year, the contestants quickly transitioned from harmonizing the teen angst of “Dear Evan Hansen” to stomping out the Celtic beats of “Come From Away.”

The group number is followed by several mash-up medleys of solos that students performed to win their regional competitions. The teenagers are in full school-production costume — whether Phantom or Wednesday Addams — and comedic juxtapositions are introduced; a proud Don Quixote of “Man of La Mancha” may interact with a nebbishy Seymour of “Little Shop of Horrors” in the context of a single number.

Because the number of participants has swelled in recent years, not every student can appear in a showcase medley. “We’d be there for four hours,” Mr. Kaplan said. So, for the second year in a row, he devised a group number that gives the remaining students a chance to woo the judges. (This year it was a tribute to shows Mr. Nederlander had produced or presented.)

Because of the rapid rise of one Jimmys alumnus, Eva Noblezada, there is new pressure on the participants: the chance to suddenly land a Broadway role simply by singing on the Minskoff stage.

Ms. Noblezada, 21, who currently plays Kim in “Miss Saigon” at the Broadway Theater and was nominated for a Tony this year, was first spotted by Ms. Rubin, the casting director, who served as a judge in 2013. “Obviously, I wouldn’t have gotten ‘Saigon’ if it wasn’t for that,” Ms. Noblezada said. (She did not win a Jimmy Award.)

“I hear Eva’s break talked about among the kids a lot,” Ms. Lalama said. She also mentioned Ryan McCartan, another former contestant who last year landed a major role on Fox’s television adaptation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Still, Ms. Noblezada warns, her big break may have been more of a fluke than current hopefuls may want to acknowledge. “I was incredibly lucky,” she said. “Lightning struck at the perfect time and place for me, and everything was aligned, with my ethnicity and what came out of my mouth. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. Nothing in this business is guaranteed.”


Justin Rivers, who returned to the Jimmys for a second year, having again won his spot at the local awards in Charlotte, N.C.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

The Contestants

Justin Rivers gets it, too.

“I know that rejection is a part of this industry, but I know it’s what is meant for me,” he said, breathless during a short break between dance rehearsals at N.Y.U.’s Tisch Hall earlier in the week.

At 18, Mr. Rivers was returning to the Jimmys for a second year, having again won his spot via the local awards in Charlotte, N.C. His classmate and childhood best friend, Amina Faye, won best actress at the Jimmys last year with a solo from “Ragtime,” a show they starred in opposite each other.

For all these reasons, Mr. Rivers said he was feeling particular pressure coming into this year’s awards. “I feel like I have something to prove. And because I just graduated high school, it’s my last chance.” (He plans to major in musical theater at Point Park University in Pittsburgh in the fall.)

Each contestant worked during the week on a solo with a coach, a working member of the Broadway community. Adam Kantor, who recently starred as Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” encouraged Mr. Rivers to connect his song to a personal experience.

“I am singing ‘It’s Hard to Speak My Heart’ from ‘Parade,’ about a man who is falsely accused of molesting a child,” he said. “And Adam asked me what it made me think of, and I said, ‘Racial profiling.’”

“He asked if it ever happened to me, and I said, ‘Yeah,’” Mr. Rivers said, of racial profiling. “And I told him the story of one time it happened and how I felt about it, and I channeled that emotion.”

Sofia Deler, 16, of Boone High School in Orlando, Fla., is one of the youngest in the competition, and abandoned her strict tennis training to pursue singing instead. Her decision paid off — on Monday night, Ms. Deler won best actress with a tender interpretation of “She Used to Be Mine” from “Waitress.”

After the show, Ms. Deler was given the full star treatment at a Planet Hollywood after-party, posing in front of flashbulbs and a glossy Jimmys banner as she met members of the news media. She held on tight to the best actor winner, Tony Moreno, 18, of Trinity Prep School in Winter Park, Fla., who won with a rousing rendition of “Disappear” from the “The Burnt Part Boys.”

Their wins are the first time in Jimmy’s history that two contestants from the same regional competition took home top national honors. “It’s overwhelming,” said Ms. Deler, squeezing Mr. Moreno’s hand and looking like she might hyperventilate.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Moreno, who will study musical theater at the University of Arizona in the fall, reflected on the previous week. He said that the group had seen “Come From Away” on Broadway and really took in its message of finding community in a strange, new land. “We were 74 people who had no idea who each other were,” Mr. Moreno said.

Now, he said, they had become a real company. And they had put on a Broadway show.

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