The show must go on virtually: ASU Gammage High School Musical Theatre Awards celebrate performance


group photo of high school theater students on stage

Chandler High School won best musical award for its production of “All Shook Up.”

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Although in-person award shows have been put on hold for the time being, that didn’t stop the sixth annual ASU Gammage High School Musical Theatre Awards (HSMTA) from taking the virtual stage on Saturday, May 23. The online event recognized and celebrated Valley high school students and faculty that produced musical theater programs for the 2019-2020 school year.

Desiree Ong, educational enrichment program manager of ASU Gammage, said the team at ASU Gammage still wanted to offer a way for students to celebrate their hard work.

“The class of 2020 has had such a difficult year, and with other ceremonies and events getting canceled, we still wanted to hold our celebration, even if it meant going online,” Ong said. “We want to send a message that the arts are important and valued in our community, and we want to encourage students to pursue their passion and continue their lifelong love of the performing arts.”

Last fall, 24 Valley high schools were chosen through an application process. Of the 24 schools, 15 were able to finish their productions before statewide school closures.

The first half of the ASU Gammage HSMTA Virtual Showcase featured short video performances from the 24 schools. Winners were announced in 14 categories, selected by a panel of adjudicators comprised of theater professionals, teachers and enthusiasts in Arizona.

Chandler High School won the best musical award for its production of “All Shook Up.” Brach Drew of Marcos De Niza High School won best lead male for his portrayal of The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical.” Angelica Santana of Dobson High School won best lead female for her performance of Nina in “In the Heights.”

Normally, the two winners would go on to compete in the national HSMTA (known as the Jimmy Awards) in New York City. Unfortunately, the 2020 Jimmy Awards were canceled. Instead, this year’s winners each received $500 due to the generosity of ASU Gammage VIP patrons Pat Langlin-Brazil and Ronald J. Harten.

The ASU Gammage Leadership Award is normally presented to two graduating seniors for their leadership not only on the stage, but in their community and school. This year, four graduating seniors were chosen and granted $500 to use toward furthering their education: Macey Clausen from Casteel High School, Aunah Johnson from Shadow Mountain High School, Jordan Wiener from Arizona School for the Arts and Luke Morton from Williams Field High School.

The participating schools were American Leadership Academy Gilbert North, American Leadership Academy Queen Creek, Arizona School for the Arts, Casteel High School, Centennial High School, Chandler High School, Chaparral High School, Desert Mountain High School, Dobson High School, Hamilton High School, Marcos De Niza High School, Maricopa High School, Mingus Union High School, New School for the Arts and Academics, Notre Dame Preparatory High School, Perry High School, Phoenix Country Day School, Queen Creek High School, Red Mountain High School, Saguaro High School, Sandra Day O’Connor High School, Shadow Mountain High School, Shadow Ridge High School and Williams Field High School.

“It’s been a really difficult year for everyone, and we want you to know at ASU Gammage, we are here to support you, and we look forward to you all returning to the theater,” said Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of ASU Gammage and ASU vice president for cultural affairs, in a closing statement on the night of the ceremony. “We look forward to the time when we all can be together.”

Going out with a 'bang'

Growing up in an athletic-centered household, the only time HSMTA lead male winner Brach Drew heard the phrase, “It’s showtime,” was in regard to game day. However, all that changed when Drew auditioned and got into his first play in the fourth grade. After having to do his first quick change in the school’s restroom and making it back to the stage in time to meet the expressions of audience members, he knew the connection he had made with them was something special. 

Since then, Drew has been in musical after musical. A native to Tempe, Arizona, his Christmas present for the past three years has been season tickets to ASU Gammage. 

Brach Drew

2020 HSMTA best lead male winner Brach Drew

Like so many other performers, Drew didn’t realize Marcos De Niza High School’s production of “Seussical” would be the last he performed in before statewide school closures.

“We went out with a bang, and I’m really grateful for that,” Drew said. 

On the night of the HSMTA ceremony, Drew sat huddled with his family in the living room and kept a Zoom call open with his fellow cast members. When he heard his name called for best lead male, Drew felt relieved.

“I put in so much work the past four years of high school developing my craft, and it paid off with receiving this recognition,” he said.

Drew remembers that when he was a freshman, his fellow Marcos de Niza actor Briana Fleming won the 2017 best lead female award. He got to congratulate her and the two took a picture together. It was in that moment that Drew decided he would work hard and do whatever it took to get there — and get there he has done.

To his theater director Patrick McChesney, saying “thank you” hardly feels like enough, he said.

“Know that everything I’m doing is to show gratitude for what you gave me — all the time, the energy, the sacrifices you’ve made for my growth. I will not take these things for granted, and I will live my life and perform, because it’s you I give credit to,” Drew said.

Being heavily involved in high school, Drew said he hopes young adults will take advantage of their time and enjoy the fullness of their high school experience because it could change in an instant.

“The idea of being yourself is excruciatingly important in musical theater, performance and life,” he said. 

Drew will be majoring in theater arts at the University of Arizona in the fall. With the funds awarded, he hopes to use it to pay for materials needed in his theater classes. He also is interested in pursuing a minor in Spanish or American Sign Language to become an interpreter.

Taking a bow

HSMTA lead female winner Angelica Santana’s theater journey started her freshman year at Dobson High School. Her school was putting on a production of “The Little Mermaid,” but her cross-country practices interfered with her getting the chance to audition. Her sophomore year, a group of friends and her boyfriend encouraged her to audition for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Santana initially thought she hadn’t made it in due to another student with the same first name getting cast. After a conversation with her theater director Simon Navarro, however, she realized she had gotten a role in the ensemble.

“I used to have the biggest stage fright, but after performing in that show, all of that went away and I just wanted to get better so I could get a bigger role in the future,” she said. 

Angelica Santana

2020 HSMTA best lead female winner Angelica Santana

After much hard work and dedication, Santana landed the role of Nina in her school’s production of “In the Heights.” Although the school never got to perform the show, Santana was still able to create a video submission for the HSMTA ceremony of her singing “Breathe.”

Santana watched the awards ceremony in her living room with her boyfriend and younger sister. When it was announced that she had won best lead female, she felt as if she’d stopped breathing.

“My jaw just dropped, my hands went over my face and I just started crying,” Santana said. “It was such a surreal moment and felt like the cherry on top; it was sad that we didn’t get to perform our show, but I was super excited that I had won.”

Santana said her choir director Whitney Murray made her into the singer that she is today, and Navarro supported her to get her to a higher place each year. At the end of the day, she said that’s all she could ask for.

Santana will be majoring in social work at Arizona State University’s West campus in the fall. She hopes to continue theater in some capacity during college, whether that be in a club or community production.

“Theater holds such a special place in my heart — with all of the friends and people that I’ve met through it,” she said. “It’s just a big part of my life now.”

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