Honoring Atlanta’s high school musical theater talent

Credit: Ben Rose/BenRosePhotography.com

Credit: Ben Rose/BenRosePhotography.com

The Shuler Awards recognize Georgia’s future stars.

Reinforce the roof at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The Shuler Awards are back.

The Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards, named for Marietta musical theater star Shuler Hensley, has gathered 344 high school students from all over Georgia for an evening modeled after Broadway’s Tony Awards. The Thursday night ceremony/show, with limos and a purple carpet for the young stars, and professionally choreographed numbers, is the culmination of a week of bonding, rehearsals, and teenagers vibrating like tuning forks.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“It’s just sheer joy and mayhem,” says awards namesake Shuler Hensley, who won Tony and Olivier Awards for “Oklahoma!” and recently finished a role in “The Music Man” revival on Broadway. Hensley has returned to his hometown to emcee the ceremony for 14 of its 15 years, missing only last year due to a positive COVID-19 test.

“It’s exhilarating, exhausting and thrilling all wrapped together, just organized chaos,” says Jennifer Dobbs, executive director of ArtsBridge Foundation, the nonprofit arts education arm of the Cobb Energy Centre that stages the awards and supports high school theater year-round.

“We definitely bonded over being drama nerds,” recalls Jai’Len Josey, who won a Shuler in 2014 as a junior at Tri-Cities High School in East Point and went on to perform on Broadway in “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” as well as the off-Broadway production of “The Secret Life of Bees.”

“A lot of us in musical theater were bullied,” she continues, “and facing the adversity of choosing a path that was sometimes laughed at. I feel like the Shulers is a great way of putting people on the path to who they really want to be.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Nominees this year represent 39 schools from 17 Georgia counties. Decatur High School has the most nominations, 10, for their production of “9 to 5,” while Greenbrier High School in Columbia County and Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville each earned eight nominations for “The Addams Family” and “Anastasia: The Musical,” respectively.

“While about half of the competitors hail from metro Atlanta high schools, participating schools spanned the state, including five counties competing for the first time,” says Elizabeth Lenhart, director of arts education for ArtsBridge Foundation.

Winners of the top Shulers go on to New York to compete in the Jimmys, the national version, named for Broadway producer James Nederlander.

The process to get to the stage of the Cobb Centre starts at the local level. Each high school musical that qualifies is visited by a team of four judges: performing arts professionals who are trained to assess student performances using a detailed scoring sheet. So the schools are not really competing directly against each other like movies in the Academy Awards do, but against the score sheet.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

This year, 51 volunteer judges (up from 46 last year) fanned out across the state to attend the high school productions.

“We don’t judge one school against another school,” explains Dobbs. “One school may have a $5,000 budget and one school may have a $20,000 budget. It’s what they do with what they have that’s important.”

The scores are submitted to an accounting firm that does the tallying.

Last year the awards broke new ground by setting up a non-gendered category for supporting performers. Instead of dividing male and female, the top two vote tallies each win a supporting performer Shuler.

“We’re trying to get everyone into that mindset of inclusivity,” says Dobbs. “It’s part of our policy that we promote of IDEA, which stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access.”

Since 2009, the GHSMTA program has engaged more than 60,000 students from 142 schools.

“But this isn’t just one night of an awards show,” says Dobbs. “This is a year-round program promoting continual improvement and helping schools advocate for more funding.” ArtsBridge also awards about $20,000 in scholarships to theater students.

Most of the students have never performed on a stage the size of the Cobb Centre’s, and it can be both terrifying and invigorating.

“I have talked to some of the kids in later years,” says Henley, “and they say it was really that experience being on that big stage, learning something so fast, celebrating musical theater, that catapulted them into the decision: I want to do this for the rest of my life.”


Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards

8 p.m. April 20. $20-$40. Broadcast live on GPB-TV. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. Atlanta. 770-916-2852, ArtsBridgeGA.org.