By Bob Abelman

In the 2006 made-for-Disney Channel movie “High School Musical,” two juniors from rival cliques – a basketball team captain, played by Zac Efron, and a shy transfer student excelling in math and science, played by Vanessa Hudgens – meet while singing a karaoke version of “Start of Something New.” They go on to try out for and get the lead roles in their high school musical, all the while resisting peer pressure, inspiring others to ignore small-town social order and finding romance. 

Since its premiere, “High School Musical” has given voice to countless kids who have found their best selves performing on or behind the stage in one of the approximately 37,500 productions being done by the nation’s high schools annually, according to American Theatre. Collectively, these productions attract more than 50 million relatives, community members and schoolmates, compared to the 13 million locals and tourists who visit Broadway’s theaters each year and the 14 million patrons who see those shows on national tour, according to the Broadway League.

Further fueling the fire under these young thespians are the two sequels Disney’s TV movie has spawned, the knock-off programs like FOX’s “Glee” and NBC’s “Rise” it has generated, the awkwardly titled stage production “High School Musical: The Musical” it has launched and, most recently, the episodic “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” that appears on the new Disney Plus streaming service.

While these productions have offered vicarious reinforcement of the theater arts, Cleveland’s Playhouse Square has been providing high school triple-threats and stage crafters with an annual opportunity to actually meet, work with and compete against like-minded teens.

Called the Dazzle Awards, this initiative – which was in its fifth year until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the culminating event – is intended to inspire and honor excellence in high school musical theater and recognize the importance of the performing arts and arts-education within the Northeast Ohio community. 

“Most importantly, we want to profoundly impact students’ lives with the arts,” says Daniel Hahn, vice president of community engagement and education at Playhouse Square and who, in his first year on the job, placed this program on the organization’s radar. “We do this by creating rich, community-wide connections, providing a support system that runs across urban and suburban, public and private high schools, and lifting up students as we celebrate them as artists.”

The 2017 Dazzle Awards. | Photo / Cody York

The Dazzle Awards in action

Earlier this year, 31 participating high schools prepared to have a panel of trained adjudicators comprised of directors, actors, administrators and critics from the local professional theater community attend one performance of their musical.  Under the supervision of Playhouse Square’s Amber McIntyre, the adjudicators evaluate the performers and the production across 15 categories that include Best Actor and Best Actress, Best Student Orchestra, Best Costume Design, Best Technical Execution and Best Musical, and provide each school with educational feedback.

This year’s process was to culminate with winners announced on May 16, at a gala Dazzle Awards ceremony in the Connor Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square. However, the adjudication process and the event were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Playhouse Square is creating a virtual Dazzle Awards chorus video as a culminating project for the original 33 schools enrolled in this year’s program.

“We reached out to all 33 directors,” says Hahn, “and asked them to select two students in their production to participate. Most students will be singing a song selected by our Dazzle Awards director Rommy Sandhu and music director Joel Mercier, and some will perform special choreography created for this virtual event.” 

The company Think Media Studios will edit the content into one culminating celebration for all of the students whose work got cut short this year. The video will debut on the date of the originally scheduled ceremony, May 16.

“So, in lieu of any type of competition, we hope this celebration gives some closure to all of the wonderful students and directors whose work deserves to be celebrated,” adds Hahn.

2019 Dazzle Awards participants perform in the ceremony. | Photo / Ken Blaze

To date, approximately 9,000 students have participated in productions represented at the Dazzle Awards, with Rocky River High School, Solon High School, Hawken Upper School, and Akron School for the Arts at Firestone CLC taking home Best Musical trophies. “I never stop being amazed by the talent, dedication and joy the students bring to the stage,” says Patricia Chapman who, along with husband John, have been key sponsors and avid supporters of the Dazzle Awards since its inception.

The winner of the Best Actress and Best Actor awards go on to perform and represent Playhouse Square and Northeast Ohio at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards, in New York City. The Jimmy Awards are named in honor of legendary Broadway producer and theater owner James M. Nederlander and will take place at the Minskoff Theatre, one of his nine Broadway houses.

2019 Dazzle Awards participants perform in the ceremony. | Photo / Ken Blaze

Since the creation of the National High School Musical Theatre program, over 100,000 students annually have participated in high school musical theater competitions and those sent to New York have earned over $2 million in university and conservatory scholarships. “And over the past few years,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, which sponsors the event, “an increasing number of Jimmy Awards alumni have gone on to star in Broadway, Touring and West End productions.”

The 12th annual Jimmy Awards was to be held on June 29, and feature 92 nominees from more than 1,700 high schools in 46 regional programs like the Dazzle Awards. That ceremony was also canceled.

In past years, after flying to New York, the students attended 10 days of training and rehearsals on the campus of New York University in preparation for ensemble production numbers during the awards ceremony, as well as their Broadway debut as soloists.

“We invite some of the most talented teens in the country to New York and give them the opportunity to realize their dreams,” adds St. Martin. “There are more young people than ever creating musical theater and falling in love with Broadway.”

2019 Dazzle Awards participants perform in the ceremony. | Photo / Ken Blaze

Broadway or bust

Make no mistake the kids who participate in the Dazzle Awards have Broadway in their sights and Cleveland in their rearview mirror. But the chances of making it on the 11-block theater mecca in Manhattan, which extends from 42nd to 53rd Streets between 6th and 8th Avenues, is astoundingly low.  The Actors’ Equity Association – the union for professional actors – reports only 38% of the professional actors who make up its membership work on any stage at any given time. And they work an average of only 16.4 weeks a year. Nearly 70% of these working actors earn $15,000 annually, or less.  Being on Broadway is even more select considering that these stages house only 36 shows at a time and many feature small casts loaded with star performers for extensive runs.

2019 Dazzle Awards participants perform in the ceremony. | Photo / Ken Blaze

Despite the odds of obtaining employment on the New York stage and the near-impossibility of making a living at it, college programs designed to prepare young actors for a career in the theater arts are bursting at the seams. And while musicals make up only a small portion of professional on-stage opportunities for actors, conservatories specializing in musical theater are filled to capacity and often more difficult to get into than the country’s most competitive medical programs and prestigious law schools.

Last fall, out of the 8,068 applicants to Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, 1.8% were accepted. For Stanford University’s medical program, 7,258 applied and 2.7% were admitted. Harvard’s medical program received 6,749 applications and enrolled 3.8%. 

The most competitive law schools include the ones at Yale University with a 6.9% acceptance rate, Stanford University with an 8.7% acceptance rate and Harvard University with a 12.9% acceptance rate.

By comparison, the best musical theater programs in the country include Carnegie Mellon University with a less than 1% acceptance rate, Elon University with a 2.5% acceptance rate, the University of Michigan with a 2.7% acceptance rate, and the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati with a 2.8% acceptance rate.

Peter Cooke, head of the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, suggests that while the school’s other degree programs remain competitive, musical theater is by far the most. When he started at Carnegie Mellon in 2009, the entire School of Drama had 1,500 applicants. This year, that number was 3,000.

“Out of those,” he adds, “2,300 were for musical theater and only six men and six women were accepted.”

When, in the fall of 1995, Victoria Bussert took over the fledgling music theater program at then-Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, she inherited five seniors, two juniors, four sophomores and a freshman class of 10.  Now, she reports that over 1,000 high school students apply each year for a freshman class at the top-rated Baldwin Wallace University, “and the acceptance rate is at 2%.”

Margo Tipping receives the 2019 Dazzle Awards Best Actress award. | Photo / Ken Blaze

Bedazzled and bewitched

Colin Trudell had no intention of attending any college known for musical theater or pursuing performance as a career. As a senior at Rocky River High School in 2016, he was a letterman in soccer, worked for the school newspaper and was heading off to Indiana University to major in sports journalism. That is, until the Dazzle Awards. 

“I performed in musicals as a fun thing to do with friends,” recalls Trudell.

And then, the school’s production of “Catch Me If You Can” was nominated for Best Musical at the Dazzle Awards, and he was nominated for Best Actor for playing Frank Abagnale Jr. 

Colin Trudell from Rocky River High School, from left, and fellow Best Actor nominees J.R. Heckman from Solon High School, Dylan Grosh-Hoy from Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, Steven Huynh from Marion L. Steele High School, and Logan Sword from Parma Senior High School at the 2016 Dazzle Awards. | Photo courtesy of Playhouse Square

“I saw that everyone on stage for the Dazzle event was exceptionally talented,” he adds, “and throughout rehearsals, Dan Knechtges (the Tony-nominated director/choreographer who orchestrated the event) and others kept telling me how good I was and that I could keep doing this if I really wanted to. I had never really thought about that.”

Apparently Trudell never watched “High School Musical.” 

He did not win Best Actor, but he is now a junior majoring in musical theater at Texas State University, participated in the school’s study abroad program to brush up his Shakespeare in London, and has set his sights on Broadway. 

“Not every student who enters Dazzle will win an award,” notes Playhouse Square’s Hahn, “but every participant certainly goes home a winner.”