A special Davenport teen and Broadway were literally a Winn-win situation.
Emily Winn (a rising sophomore at Davenport Central High School) was part of the recent Jimmy Awards ceremony in New York City, including 92 participants nationwide making their debut on a Broadway stage when they performed in an unforgettable talent showcase. During this event, a panel of judges selected two students for the coveted awards of Best Performance by an Actor and Best Performance by an Actress (the winners were from San Antonio and San Diego).
The program has, in past years, invited two nominees from each regional ceremony across the country to New York City to participate in a theatre intensive including coaching and rehearsals with Broadway professionals in preparation for a one-night-only talent showcase on a Broadway stage.
The 2022 Jimmy Awards (formally the National High School Musical Theatre Awards) took place on Monday, June 27 at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. The event was hosted by Kate Reinders and streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.
Emily — who starred as Ariel in Central’s production of “The Little Mermaid” in April — wore an Ariel costume and wig that was provided, for a special character medley in the show, culmination of a nine-day program in New York City.
“The coolest thing ever”
Emily said recently that performing on a Broadway stage was “the coolest thing ever.” They were there starting 8 a.m. Monday (when Broadway theaters are dark), and rehearsed all day for that night’s show.
“It’s the theater where ‘The Lion King’ is. It’s all ‘Lion King’ themed, with gift shops,” she said. “Then backstage, it’s even crazier. There are so many huge animals, so many to look at.”
During the week, all teachers and students wore KN95 face masks, and then at the Minskoff they performed without masks, but put them on backstage, Emily said.
“It didn’t really affect anything at all. It actually made singing easier than a normal mask,” she said.
The 1,696-seat Minskoff was sold out for the June 27 production, including Emily’s parents and sister Anna.
“It was electric — before the opening started, there was a drum roll,” she said, noting the opening number featured a song from the Tony-winning new show “SIX.” “People just erupted. It was crazy. The whole medley, everyone was just going crazy. The lights, the sound, having a real Broadway orchestra. It was crazy, everything was so professional.”
Emily got to meet the host, Kate Reinders, at her dressing room. “The door was open, and we kind of locked eyes with her, and she said, ‘Hey, ladies!’ Emily said of herself and her roommate. Reinders took a selfie on her phone with the two.
“It was so cool, like that actually just happened?” Emily said. Reinders has played Glinda in “Wicked” on Broadway, and Portia in “Something Rotten.”
Since its 2009 inception, NHSMTA has been the catalyst for more than $4 million in educational scholarships awarded to deserving young performers, according to its website. The Jimmy Awards are named for Broadway impresario James M. Nederlander, and this year-round program is administered by The Broadway League Foundation Inc.
The Minskoff is one of nine Broadway theaters owned by the Nederlander Organization. “The Lion King” — the 3rd-longest running show in Broadway history — has been at the Minskoff since 2006; it premiered on Broadway in 1997 and has played over 9,600 performances.
Honoring triple threats
Emily — who has played Annie (2017) and young Fiona in “Shrek” (2018) at QC Music Guild — had to clear many hurdles to make it to this prestigious program.
The Triple Threat award program brings together some of Iowa’s most accomplished young performers, said Jonathan Brendemuehl, communications director for Des Moines Performing Arts, which presents the annual Iowa High School Musical Theater Awards.
“These young people are recognized for their excellence as a singer, dancer and actor. Students get to work with Broadway professionals to prepare for the Iowa High School Musical Theater Awards Showcase and this year, they participated in virtual personal coaching sessions to hone their audition materials,” Brendemuehl said.
“Students, like Emily, experience a professional audition process that helps build confidence for their future, whether that is on stage or in a traditional work environment,” he said.
Emily was chosen to perform in the Iowa High School Musical Theatre Awards Showcase, held Saturday, June 18, at the Des Moines Civic Center.
They first had a musical theater camp (June 4-6) in Des Moines, with auditions, and the winners performed at the Iowa showcase in Des Moines. “The camp was really great,” Emily said, noting they were 72 students who auditioned. “We had to learn the medley, 52 pages long, that we performed at the showcase — the choreography, the music.”
The Des Moines Performing Arts camp resulted in one male and one female chosen to compete in the Jimmy Awards, representing Iowa. The boy was Noah Bowers from Southeast Polk High School in Pleasant Hill. The students throughout the state had to be invited to attend the camp. Emily, Croix Baker and Gage McCalester were picked from Davenport Central to participate.
When she found out she won Triple Threat, and would go to the Jimmys, “I really had no idea — I did not expect it at all. I was one of the youngest ones in the camp, if not the youngest,” Emily said. “When they announced it, I screamed. I wanted to go to the Jimmys; it was my one goal in high school.”
“I screamed a lot and my friends around me were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you won!'” she recalled. “I was crying a lot. For hours, I couldn’t stop crying.”
Emily actually got to see “Hamilton” at the Des Moines Civic Center for free, at the end of her camp, since she stayed an extra day.
Obsessed for many years
She had known about the Jimmys since 5th grade, and followed Peyton Reese (a 2019 Central grad) when she performed that year in the Jimmys. Emily recalled being in the youthful cast of “Matilda” at the Spotlight Theatre that summer.
“Everyone was freaking out, there were so many high school kids in that show,” Emily said. “During rehearsal, we were watching the Jimmys,” she said. “It was a big deal and I think I had known of it before then. I didn’t think anybody from Iowa — let alone Davenport Central — could go. But after Peyton won, I definitely had an obsession with all the videos.”
Emily and Peyton spoke a lot this year about the experience.
For all the students, it was an all-expenses paid trip, were put up at the Juilliard School dorms, and all meals were free. They got to see the Broadway show “Moulin Rouge,” were given money for souvenirs, and got to go to dinner at the iconic theater restaurant Sardi’s.
Emily was one of just three freshmen in the 92 (others were from Arizona and New York City), and got close to them.
“I think everyone was especially nice to the freshmen,” she said. “I think it was a shock to everybody.”
Many students asked what college she was going to, and they were impressed she had just finished freshman year. “It was a fun thing to have all these older girls supporting you,” Emily said.
She had seen three Broadway shows with her family, the summer before middle school, when they saw “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Band’s Visit” and “Mean Girls.”
“I’ve always loved New York. I know that I want to live there when I graduate, so I was super excited when I first went, and after this time it seemed a little smaller,” Emily said. The first time, she thought, “This is not real, this is a fever dream.”
They normally would work 12-hour days, from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with meal breaks and other short breaks.
Highlights of the Jimmys
Emily said she learned so much from the Broadway veterans they worked with.
“I think my favorite part of the experience was being in the character medley,” she said. “Those are the iconic things from the Jimmy Awards, I’ve seen my whole life on YouTube. Being in the room when they were choreographing it, learning the music — when I found out that I was going to be in a character medley, I was so excited.
“They were giving me an Ariel costume — it was all just very exciting,” Emily said. “And the day we went to Sardi’s and to ‘Moulin Rouge,’ and we had a talkback with the performers of ‘Moulin Rouge,’ And we met Andrew Barth Feldman, and that was awesome. I was so excited, I love him so much.”
Feldman won the Jimmy Awards in 2018, at age 16, then played the title role of “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway and is 20 now.
Working and living at Juilliard (where rehearsals were) was amazing, Emily said.
“It was so cool. All the buildings and rooms are so beautiful. One is all made of glass, and it’s like you’re just floating in New York City. I had a coaching session in that room.”
Her coach was Jacques Smith, who is in the current “Book of Mormon” cast on Broadway. “He’s the best guy; he’s so full of knowledge and so professional. It was really like, I felt I went to college at Juilliard. We all had different schedules — we had an app on our phone with our personal schedules for the day. I don’t think any schedule was the same. There was a break room, with coffee, tea and snacks.”
The entire group rehearsed opening and closing numbers. The coaching group had 15 kids, and Emily’s character medley had eight. There were four character medleys in the show.
One student group did a tribute to the legendary Stephen Sondheim, who died last fall at age 91.
The character medleys were just songs, and for Emily, she sang after the “SpongeBob” character, like she was in love with Squidward.
Proud mom’s reaction
Jenny Winn, Emily’s mom, is a QC theater veteran whose many credits include lead roles with Quad City Music Guild, Circa ’21, Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, District Theatre and Black Box Theatre.
She and her family made a long NYC weekend of it recently, seeing the Broadway shows “Phantom of the Opera,” “Beetlejuice” and “Hadestown,” before seeing Emily Monday night, also on Broadway.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling, just thinking, it’s Broadway right?” Jenny said of the Jimmys. “The show was so professionally done. We had watched lots of YouTube videos from past Jimmy shows. It’s a really cool feeling to know your kid is one of the performers who will be on YouTube forever and other kids will see it. I thought the production was wonderful and she was amazing in it.”
“I don’t think any of us expected it,” Jenny said of Emily being picked. “It’s hard to put into words. She’s my baby. It’s so strange, we didn’t get to see her for nine days leading up to the show. She’s 15 and this is the longest time she’s been away from home.”
She said Emily didn’t get a swelled ego from all the attention in the Big Apple, and credited the “phenomenal” Iowa High School Musical Theater staff for supporting Emily in the process. That included having a chaperone for her in New York.
“She’s pretty grounded about it all,” Jenny said. “Sometimes, it’s your time. There will be great roles for her, and she’s not opposed to playing smaller roles in shows. The Quad Cities has so many great opportunities for young people. She’s been involved in so many other theaters and groups, there will be lots of opportunities for her.”
June was a huge month for both the Winn girls, as Emily’s older sister Anna (an Augustana College student) got to go on a two-week tour with the Augie choir of Germany and the Czech Republic, returning home June 7.
Anna had a solo in the choir’s last concert in Prague, in a piece called “Hands.” (You can hear it HERE.) “It’s gorgeous,” Jenny said.
Back to normal life
When she returns to Central in the fall, Emily doesn’t expect to be treated differently, or win leads in future shows.
“I feel like I’m the same person I always was,” she said. “I think it’ll be easier, because I always thought that three-hour rehearsals, like I’m so tired. But now after working 12 hours a day for nine days, it’s like — it didn’t really affect me. I didn’t totally notice how tired I was because I was having so much fun.
“I’m excited to be back and do other shows in the Quad Cities, with people I know and love, and people I am comfortable with,” Emily said. Central’s musical is in the spring, and hasn’t been announced yet.
A photo gallery of Emily (including “Little Mermaid” at Central, the Des Moines showcase, and the Jimmys experience) is below: