Jai’len Josey, a 15-year-old student at Tri-Cities High School in East Point, has been named best actress at the National High School Musical Theater Awards in New York City (dubbed the Jimmys, for theater owner James Nederlander). This is a big deal. Last year’s winner is now playing Kim in a London production of Miss Saigon.
Josey performed Effie Melody White’s gut-busting anthem “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls and “Raise the Roof” from Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party in besting 27 other girls in the competition. To qualify for New York, Josey first won best actress honors at the Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards, more commonly known as the Shuler Hensley Awards. (Hensley, a Cobb County native, won the 2002 Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical as Jud Fry in Oklahoma! and has been back on Broadway four times since then.)
For the national victory, Josey won $10,000 toward her education and a full scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University’s six-week, pre-college drama program. She’s also eligible for a four-year scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts New Studio on Broadway, if she’s accepted into the program.
Jonah Rawlitz, from suburban Chicago, topped the field of 28 boys by singing “If I Didn’t Believe You” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years and doing the Usnavi character from In the Heights as part of an ensemble number.
The competition’s long winnowing process began months ago with 60,000 students from 1,500 schools. The 56 who made it to New York got a five-day theatrical boot camp in which they learned opening and closing numbers, got expert advice on their solo songs and took a trip to see the musical Kinky Boots. The national awards performance took place on the stage of the 1,597-seat Minskoff Theatre (currently home to The Lion King).
The six-person judging panel included Kent Gash, formerly associate artistic director at the Alliance Theatre and now director of NYU’s New Studio on Broadway. The others: casting agents Rachel Hoffman and Tara Rubin, Tony-nominated producer Arielle Tepper Madover, Nick Scandalios from the Nederlander Organization and choreographer Sergio Trujillo.