“Five! Six! Seven! Eight!”
Ginger Morris — a petite, bubbly bolt of energy — directs two dozen performers in a carpeted room at the Long Center. Shaping jazzy moves inflected with hippie accents for the number “Aquarius” from “Hair,” she brandishes a big voice that is always connected to a big smile. This is not a barking, bullying director.
“Pay attention to your numbers on the floor, or you’ll end up in the wrong place, and you’ll look like you don’t know what you are doing!”
The amazingly talented teens dressed in studio togs this Saturday morning are members of the Select Ensemble, chosen from the 31 schools participating in the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards, which return to the Long Center on Thursday.
Inspired by similar prizes in Houston and Dallas, in 2014 these honors — which desperately need a new, streamlined name — quickly became deliriously popular highlights of the Austin theater season.
Last year, the briskly executed ceremony included polished numbers from the Select Ensemble, fully staged excerpts from the musicals nominated for best production and clever medleys performed by the lead acting nominees, nine girls and nine boys.
In a brilliant move, Morris keeps the nominees onstage for the announcements of the medalists. All converge on the winner in happy congratulations. That is a welcome contrast with other Texas high school contests that divide the ecstatic victors from the tearful vanquished.
“They are hugging and supportive,” Morris says. “They’ve been rehearsing together two weeks and have formed a bond. Last year, all the girls got together and had a slumber party. They joined the same social media groups and really did become close. Anyway, by the time of the awards show, it’s done.”
Reared in McAllen, Morris, 40, came to Austin in 1994 to study theater at the University of Texas. She soon signed up with Austin Musical Theatre, which staged several seasons of mostly glorious Broadway-scale musicals at the Paramount Theatre. She started out in stage management, then opened and ran the group’s performing arts academy.
She freelanced for 15 years before founding — with director, music director, performer and teacher Michael McKelvey — an annual rotation of youth-populated musicals called Summer Stock Austin. It became a crucial springboard for the city’s increasingly savvy talent pool.
With Clay Nichols, Morris created the Texas Arts Project, a sleepaway camp for performing and media arts housed at St. Stephen’s Episcopal High School.
Some movers and shakers took notice of these developments. They thought of Morris when the Tommy Tune Awards, given out by Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, grew in size and stature.
Sent to Houston to observe, she ended up assisting the choreographer.
“I went just to watch,” she says. “I took notes. Asked questions. The same guy was doing the Dallas awards, which were new that year. He asked me if I would meet him in Dallas and help him there. So we took ideas from both and thought up new things. The Select Ensemble, for instance, is not something they do. We made it as Austin as it could be.”
Always a Long Center project, the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards have been plagued by one thing from the beginning — their name. Austin has not yet produced a Broadway star with the fame or longevity of Tommy Tune, who grew up in Houston.
In fact, if Houston hadn’t gotten there first, Austin could have claimed Tune, who often returns to the city where he attended college. So for the time being, they are stuck calling it GAHSMTA for short.
Sounds like an alien from “Star Wars.”
On a positive note, Allen Robertson, who appears to bank as much energy as Morris, writes the opening and closing numbers. He also orchestrates the whole show. Adam Roberts arranges the lead medleys, teaches the music to the teens and conducts the show.
The local awards process contrasts sharply with the annual one-act play contests staged by the University Interscholastic League and organized by UT as a statewide complement to the UIL’s athletic, speech and academic competitions. Since the 1920s, this venerable institution has pitted high school against high school, turning the springtime drama playoffs into something not unlike the winner-take-all experience of sporting events.
On the upside, because of the UIL contest, virtually every Texas high school, even ones in the smallest towns, devotes significant resources to these 40-minute nonmusicals.
“Inherently in competition, you feel like you have to work harder,” Morris says. “That can be a helpful thing for young people. But when we started these awards, one of my biggest goals was that the competitive thing would not be in the forefront. It makes it exciting, but we are devoted to community building and learning to support each other and bringing schools together.”
Many of the area musicals are staged in January. Seventeen judges head out to 31 schools, three for each show.
“They might go on different nights,” Morris says. “So the kids do the show as they normally do. There may be a judge there that night, maybe not. It’s not about pleasing one member of the audience.”
The evaluators submit scores and notes and then meet for a retreat weekend. Each high school produces a 10-minute highlight reel, which all the judges watch. Some of the scores are derived from the live performances, and others are taken from the reels. When the judges leave the retreat, they don’t know who the nominees will be.
So come Thursday, all those squeals of joy will be spontaneous.
To teach and to please
While it is not surprising that Austin’s major theater, dance and music companies operate training programs, presenting entities like the Long Center rarely produce such multifaceted educational outlets.
The musical awards remain the cornerstone of these programs. Summer Stock Austin, which wins plaudits and awards from local critics, is now under the Long Center’s umbrella, too.
“There isn’t any other program in the country quite like it,” Morris says about Summer Stock Austin. “There are several summer stock companies and several training programs. But this hybrid allows high school students to participate tuition-free. A mentorship program helps pays college students a stipend. High school students learn from college student mentors, who in turn learn from industry professionals.”
The Texas Arts Project has also joined the Long Center family. Students ages 9 to 18 spend four weeks learning about musical theater, acting and filmmaking in St. Stephen’s gorgeous setting in the western hills.
A fourth Long Center effort, the College Audition Program, offers individualized consultation, specialized training and practical preparation to help students gain the skills and confidence to tackle the college audition process. Morris teams with Adam Roberts and Nick Mayo on this project.
“In just one year, our students were offered more than $250,000 in scholarships to top music and theater programs across the country,” Morris says. “We work on material and preparation, including parent consultations, from September through January, and then we chaperone or concierge the students on their Unified Audition trip to Chicago in February.”
Finally, the Eyego to the Arts campaign offers $5 tickets to any high school student to participating Long Center Presents shows.
“They are single tickets and could be anywhere in the house,” Morris says. “It makes going to the theater more affordable than going to the movies.”
The students’ take
The Select Ensemble experience doesn’t end with the awards show. They also perform at benefits and community events around town.
Back in the semi-chaos of the Select Ensemble rehearsal, students help each other out, stretching, twirling, swinging arms, rolling heads.
“We never actually staged that,” points out an alert performer who has the makings of a director. She takes out a binder of sheet music to explain a musical phrase.
While not all participants are highly trained dancers at this point, they are young, so everything is possible.
An assistant interrupts: “I think you are letting the fluidity of the song get in the way of the movement.”
Spotting an empty part of the stage, Morris waves over unoccupied performers. “The three of you who are in ‘All That Jazz’ are now in ‘Aquarius,’” she says. “Go upstage center.”
Slowly it dawns on this reporter that these smart, eager performers have almost no way of completely understanding the layered historical context of the lyrics — “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!” — any more than teens my age in the 1960s could have channeled the popular battle songs sung 50 years during World War I.
Even their parents were born long after flower power and the hippie ethos had been dashed on the rocks of 1970s and ’80s cynicism.
Yet cynicism plays no part in the student view of this awards show.
“The awards, to me, serve as an opportunity to strive for greatness,” says Matthew Kennedy, who took a lead role in last year’s Select Ensemble. “It reminds me that I should try to do my best in whatever I attempt or pursue. And whatever the outcome may be, the reward is in knowing that I did my best. And it also gives Austin schools a chance to connect on a greater level and be recognized for the hard work and artistry they bring to the table.”
Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards
Thursday, Long Center for the Performing Arts, thelongcenter.org, 512-474-5664
Leander High School — “Pippin”
Anderson High School — “Curtains”
Cedar Ridge High School — “Cats”
McNeil High School — “Barnum”
Hendrickson High School — “In the Heights”
James Bowie High School — “The Who’s Tommy”
Rouse High School — “In the Heights”
McCallum Fine Arts Academy — “Me and My Girl”
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Michael Morran — Anderson High School
Bruno Maples — David Crockett High School
Chris Ayala — Hendrickson High School
Matthew Kennedy — Leander High School
AJ Lawrence — Lehman High School
Tristan Tierney — McCallum Fine Arts
Keaton Brandt — McNeil High School
Elliot Esquivel — Rouse High School
Sam Oberle — St. Stephen’s Episcopal High School
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Sophie Niles — McNeil High School
Maddie Reese — Lake Travis High School
Erin Swearingen — Jack C. Hays High School
Anna McGuire — McCallum Fine Arts Acamedy
Jessica Askey — Lake Travis High School
Trinity Adams — Dripping Springs High School
Isabelle Dickey — LBJ/LASA
Olivia Vines — Anderson High School
Chloe Byars — James Bowie High School