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LAYTON — For six years, Utah high school students have participated in a very creative competition: musical theater awards.
The 7th annual Utah High School Musical Theatre awards will be held on May 13. This year's awards show will be held at the Eccles Theatre in Salt Lake City, now home to Broadway touring companies.
This year, 250 performers from 29 schools will participate. And the winners of the best actor and best actress categories go to New York City for the nationals in June.
Michael Ballam, whose Utah Festival Opera sponsors the event, is the host. He said big opportunities can come from this event.
"Cameron Mackintosh was there two years ago, and he witnessed a young lady whom he went backstage and he hired her to go and play the leading role in 'Miss Saigon,' which she has been playing ever since," he said.
As one of ten finalists, Northridge High School theater students are set to take the music theatre awards. They will be performing a selection from “Fiddler on the Roof.” This is a busy time, because when we visited the theatre department, they were rehearsing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which was their spring musical production. The group has won the competition with “The Wedding Singer.”
Jana Coates, the group’s theater teacher, said even though it’s called a competition, the young people learn so much from one another.
"It's like bringing all the like-minded children in the state together in one place, so that they can each show what they can do and celebrate everyone's accomplishments," she said.
There are finalists in five categories: best show, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, and best supporting actress — all representing high schools across the state.
"It's so cool,” said student Joe Porter. “It's just something that you think teenagers wouldn't be doing.”
"Honestly, I'll probably get up there and say, 'Who stood right here? Who stood over here?'" said Rylee Jensen.
With all of the success at Northridge High School and the anticipation of taking their show to the Eccles Theatre, right in the middle of all of that came the worst news: the loss of two of their classmates.
"I would say, as a teacher, it's probably the most difficult thing I've ever had to do,” Coates said. "Doing it once was hard and when it happened the second time, it felt overwhelming.”
Josh Nielsen was killed in a car accident last November and Lexy Hipwell died in a hiking accident just two months earlier. The students mourned with their families, saying these two were so often the heart and soul of their shows.
Ashley Hipwell lost her sister but said she finds comfort with her theater family.
"Everyone tried to make it as normal as possible, which I appreciated because then I didn't have to feel it all the time. And I could be here and not have to think about anything," she said.
It feels, they say, like someone is missing.
"It's been a hard year. We miss them a lot — terribly," Jensen said.
In their production of "Aida," the cast dedicated a song to Josh and Lexy.
"For me, personally, I felt so supported, felt so together and it felt like they were up there cheering us on," Jensen said.
Coates said she is very proud of her students. "The kids handled it better than you ever could have imagined,” she said. “These kids are incredible!"
Porter said his mom told him to invite his theater family to their home, right after Josh died. It was a healing moment, he said.
"When someone leaves this world, it's hard. And I remember not being able to feel words and not being able to express what was in my mind, I was like, ‘What can I do now?’ And I love the theater and choir director, just kept pushing us 'Just dance and sing and it's going be OK,'" Porter said.
This year, the Northridge High theater students will take to the Eccles Theatre stage with friends and family, seen and unseen, in the audience and on stage.
The Utah High School Musical Theatre awards competition takes place Saturday, May 13th at the Eccles Theatre in Salt Lake at 7 p.m.
Contributing: Xoel Cardenas