In the Broadway musical 9 to 5, three women kidnap their sexist, egotistical boss before taking charge of his company. The plot makes for a lot of laughs, but for Pittsburgh sophomore Bryce Chisom, who played one of the three women in Obama Academy’s adaptation of the musical this spring, it’s also a story of empowerment.
“Seeing that three women did this all by themselves,” says Chisom, “seeing how they took action over such a powerful man was really inspiring.”
Chisom is among the nine Pittsburgh Public Schools students nominated in this year’s Gene Kelly Awards, a regional competition (named for the famed Pittsburgh-born entertainer) that recognizes student musicals in the Pittsburgh area. Winners will be announced at an event at the Benedum Center on May 28.
“It was really amazing [to be nominated],” says Chisom. “I actually didn’t believe it. I started bursting out in tears when I found out. I was really excited.”
The students nominated this year are part of a 26-year tradition. Some past awardees from the region, like actor Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), have gone on to successful careers on Broadway and in television and film.
“We definitely have a mission here, and it’s really about changing lives,” says Kiesha Lalama, director of the Gene Kelly Awards. “In the 26 years the Kellys have been going on, I continue to hear the stories over and over again about the positive impact it’s had on people’s lives.”
That’s especially true for students in PPS, who have consistently been nominated in their division year after year despite the less-than-stellar reputation urban school districts tend to have. The annual event gives PPS students a chance to shine, and more importantly, musical-theater supporters say, they’re learning skills they can’t find in the classroom.
“The hours and hours they put into these performances — it shows their dedication, their work ethic, their passion,” says Lalama. “I think musical theater brings a sense of community, a sense of respect and value for one another. It goes well beyond developing performance skills. It really helps kids with social development and life skills.”
Nearly 30 schools face off in this year’s Kelly Awards. They’re broken into divisions based on the estimated budget for their musicals, so that schools in low-income communities aren’t wiped out by more affluent schools in the suburbs.
“Some schools have very large budgets and other schools are working with pennies, scraping them together to make it work,” says Lalama. “We want to make it as fair as possible, making sure we are comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges.”
Mindy Rossi-Stabler, CAPA High School’s theater coordinator, says her students notice the difference in budget between their school and others. But instead of being jealous, she says they feel camaraderie with competing schools.
“They see the difference, especially in budget, when the other kids come with monogrammed garment bags for their costumes,” says Rossi-Stabler. “Public schools just don’t have that kind of money. It’s good for them to be exposed to that, but also to understand that quality and art doesn’t necessarily have to come from a big budget and money. We’re obviously in the low-budget [category] at the Kellys every year. That doesn’t mean we don’t put out a good product.”
Despite its budget, CAPA is consistently nominated and awarded at the Kellys, thanks in no small part to its musical-theater program. But Rossi-Stabler says the importance of musical theater and the arts should extend beyond CAPA.
“We’re lucky at CAPA because this is what we concentrate on, but the other schools still put on really good products,” says Rossi-Stabler. “Throughout the public schools, the more arts we can give these kids, I think the better off they all are. The most successful people have really had a basis in some kind of art during their educational career.”
That’s something CAPA senior Paul Watt-Morse, who is nominated for best actor, agrees with. Next year, he’s moving on to the Boston Conservatory, where he’ll study musical theater.
“[Musical theater has] taught me a lot about hard work,” says Watt-Morse. “It teaches you how to work together. I think a lot of sports are super-competitive, but in musical theater you’re working together to accomplish a goal. Every person is super-important to the process.”
And for Watt-Morse, the Gene Kellys are a culmination of his hard work at CAPA. As a freshman, he says, he was in awe of a senior classmate who won a Kelly for his role in In the Heights. Now it could be his turn.
“To think I’m almost where he was is a cool thought. It’s kind of surreal, but it’s great,” Watt-Morse says. “I think [the awards] serve as some extra motivation, and I think a lot of us reach for that because we won’t have that opportunity later in life. Whether we decide to do this for a living or not, we will rarely have the opportunity to see something tangible to recognize us for the work we’ve done. When you get it, it’s just an amazing feeling.”
For sophomore Chisom, there’s no greater feeling than performing on the Benedum stage at the Gene Kelly awards.
“I already feel like a really great power over me performing on the Obama [Academy] stage, but performing on the Benedum stage was like 10 times more exciting,” Chisom says. “Just seeing all those faces and all the lights, and just the adrenaline before coming on stage — it’s just such an amazing experience.”
Students at Obama have had the opportunity to perform at the awards for the past two years because they were nominated for, and won, best musical. But unfortunately, despite nominations for best ensemble, best all-student orchestra, and two for actress, Obama didn’t receive that nomination this year.
“It was a lesson we really had to sit down and talk about this year,” says Kelly McKrell, Obama’s director. “That was hard for me as their leader to tell them they didn’t get to perform this year.”
But rather than feeling defeated, Obama’s students used the disappointment to inspire them.
“We actually found out about the nominations and still had to do three shows, and I’ve never seen students perform so well in my career,” says McKrell. “I was so afraid it would affect them negatively, but I’ve never seen so much energy from high schoolers in my career. I was very proud of them.”
In an effort to stave off the disappointment students can feel when competing in such a high-profile competition, McKrell often tries to steer focus away from the Kelly Awards.
“I was in the Kellys as a child,” says McKrell. “So I understand the feeling of being on that stage and having that opportunity, and I tell them it’ll be something that you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren, that you performed at the Benedum. So they do look at it like an honor, but I try not to make it the focus of the season, because I don’t want them to see it as a competition.”
Instead, she hopes students reflect on how performing in the musical has impacted their lives.
“They open up to the audience on closing night, and they talk about how it changed their lives,” says McKrell. “They say things like, ‘I never thought I’d fit in,’ ‘I never thought I’d have another family or a safe place to go where I can be myself.’ Those comments really resonate with me.”
Having performed in only her second musical at Obama, Chisom says she’s learning to balance her schoolwork with the pressures of rehearsal. And in the end, she says, what she’s learned from participating is what matters most.
“It motivates you to be on top of your schoolwork even more” says Chisom. “Another great thing about musicals is if you’re passionate about it, you can be the same or even better than anyone at any other school. It comes from your passion and how much you love to do it.”