Interview: Kelli O'Hara talks about OKC Broadway's inaugural Kelli O'Hara Awards
An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
New Kelli O'Hara Awards to honor Oklahoma high school theater students
Kelli O’Hara was 16 years old when she found her place.
“We moved to Deer Creek in Edmond when I was 16. It was a very hard transition because I had lived in Elk City almost my whole life before that, but I immediately found my place with Dixie Lee Jordan and her theater program,” O’Hara recalled via email.
“I think theater does that; it gives people a place to belong. We built and painted our sets, worked on costumes, put together shows as a team. I learned so much from her and the whole process. It was my first taste of real acting study.”
Now a Tony Award winner starring in the acclaimed Broadway revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” the Oklahoma native is hoping to inspire high school theater students in her home state with the launch of the Kelli O’Hara Awards.
OKC Broadway – a partnership between the Nederlander Organization and the Civic Center Foundation – last fall announced the establishment of the annual Kelli O’Hara Awards, adding Oklahoma City to a growing list of cities across the country participating in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, aka “The Jimmy Awards.”
“I honestly can’t believe it. It doesn’t seem real,” O’Hara told The Oklahoman. “It’s just one of the greatest honors I can imagine if it helps bring focus and excitement to the arts in the state of Oklahoma.”
The winners of the inaugural Kelli O'Hara Awards will be announced at a ceremony Sunday night at the Civic Center Music Hall. The finalists come from across the OKC metro area, and the awards ceremony, featuring performances by all the nominees, will be directed by Lyric Theatre’s Michael Baron.
“When you’ve done it in a number of other cities, and you see the magic that it creates, every time you do it for the first time, you get to see that magic anew,” said Nick Scandalios, executive vice president of The Nederlander Organization.
“When I look at the arc of the decade that The Jimmys has been done in New York, I can point to an ever-elevating level of talent pool. I think that is something that happens over time because of the groundswell that happens in the local community. … All the kids have been amazing who have won, but you can see the overall body of talent escalating over the decade. And I can only attribute that to it’s just become more and more meaningful inside the individual communities. They want to bring their A game.”
Named for the late theater owner and producer James M. Nederlander, The Jimmy Awards were founded in 2009 to elevate the importance of theater arts education in schools and reward excellence in student performance.
The regional awards program runs parallel with the school year as adjudicators travel to watch area high school students perform. Regional winners in the best actor and best actress categories are invited to New York each June for a professional training intensive and to compete in a national awards program on a Broadway stage.
In Oklahoma City, awards also will be given for the best musical and best ensemble, and a Spotlight Award will be awarded to an outstanding ensemble member from each school.
OKC Broadway will officially be recognized as a Jimmy Awards provider in 2020, so this year will serve as a sort of dress rehearsal. The best actor and best actress winners will travel to New York to attend but not compete in The Jimmy Awards.
Beginning in 2020, winners in those categories will compete among the top stars in high school musical theater programs from around the country. A frequent Jimmy Awards judge, Scandalios said the panel typically includes casting agents and theater directors, and students have an unparalleled chance to perform on a Broadway stage.
“You are in front of the professional theater community on a Broadway stage. And while you may not be auditioning for any role in particular, the one thing that you can see is those who can either already command a Broadway stage or have the potential to command a Broadway stage. And you don’t have to guess because they’re doing it on a Broadway stage,” he said. “Many of the Jimmy winners and runner-ups are actually working in the theater.”
That includes 2018 winner Andrew Barth Feldman, who is currently playing the title role in the Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway.
Even students who don’t pursue a career as a performer or in theater can benefit from the experience of competing in The Jimmy Awards, Scandalios said.
“Maybe their theater experience is what makes them a great public speaker in the future part of their life and they’re a great prosecutor because they had this kind of experience. You don’t know where it’s going to land … but it still has the same powerful value no matter what you do in your life,” he said. “It’s a very daunting thing to be 16, 17, 18 years old and stand on a Broadway stage on the set of ‘The Lion King’ in a 1,700-seat theater knowing you are performing in front of 500 theater professionals. So, you can do a lot of things.”
O’Hara said she won’t be able to attend Sunday’s ceremony because she will be performing on Broadway. But she said there is a lesson there, too.
“I can’t believe I will miss the first awards presentation. I would be there if I could, but one thing I have tried to always prioritize is my responsibility to my commitments. I have a family here onstage every night. We depend on each other. I didn’t even attend the Olivier Awards in London this year because I didn’t want to let down my ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ company,” she said.
A seven-time Tony Award nominee, O’Hara said getting that kind of recognition never gets old, and she hoped that the finalists for her namesake awards take the honor to heart.
“Where I always want to promote the work over the reward, I also know the work is encouraged by the reward so I think these awards are VERY important for the youth of Oklahoma. It will be something to bring them together as a community to celebrate each other and the work they all do,” she said.
The Kelli O’Hara Awards
When: 6 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
Finalists for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Sophia Davis, Norman High School
Kindle Ford, Putnam City High School
Arden Hearne, Edmond Santa Fe High School
Maya Jacobs, Norman High School
Prudence Lloyd, Bethany High School
Katelyn Loomis, Norman High School
Taylor Loomis, Norman High School
Ashley Raydon, Southmoore High School
Jaiden Sango, Putnam City High School
Lexi Sendall, Choctaw High School
Finalists for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Logan Boyd, Classen School of Advanced Studies
Jason Burnam, Choctaw High School
Brenden Coplen, Choctaw High School
C.J. Craig, Choctaw High School
Diego Martinez, Putnam City High School
Grant McLain, Heritage Hall
Bryson Miller, Bethany High School
Joel Stephens, Southmoore High School
Tyler Swenson, Putnam City High School
Common Wallace, Putnam City High School
Finalists for Outstanding Musical Performance
"Shrek," Choctaw High School
"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," Heritage Hall
"Into the Woods," Norman High School
Finalists for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble
"The Music Man," Bethany High School
"Godspell," Deer Creek High School
"Into the Woods," Norman High School