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Who will win at this year's Rising Star Awards?

 If the shoe fits... Who will be the next Paper Mill Cinderella story?
by Rich McNanna

It’s probably fitting that one of the seven Paper Mill Playhouse 2017 Rising Star Award nominations for “Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical” is a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.  For while all of this season’s nominated musicals possess the motif of “underdog” in one way or another, no other character in literature seems to personify this trait more than the girl who quite literally rises from cinder and ash to glory.   (Anyone who has ever rooted for a 16-seed “Cinderella story” in college basketball will tell you that.)

But it is not March Madness with which we are concerned – rather, it is this week’s highly anticipated presentation of the 2017 Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards on which we set our sights – a kind of June Jocundity, if you will. This award ceremony reflects the culmination of a 100-New Jersey high school musical theater competition in which each school’s production was analyzed and critiqued based upon multiple technical and performance criteria. And in this, the 22nd incarnation of the awards, dozens of student actors, technicians, and theater programs at large will try on their own glass slippers in attempt to etch their names in fine Tiffany crystal trophies of excellence. In particular, twenty-eight young men and women – the nominees for “Outstanding Performance by an Actress / Actor in a Leading Role”  and “Outstanding Performance by an Actress / Actor in a Supporting Role” – will vie for top honors among all individual performances. 

At stake are substantial rewards: “four $1,000 cash awards to outstanding individual students participating in entered Rising Star Award productions, and who plan to continue studying theatre or technical theatre in college,” according to the Paper Mill’s official information. “A fifth cash scholarship of $1,000 is awarded in memoriam of Rising Star Nominee Douglas Michael Krueger.” 

Equally important, however, is the opportunity all nominees for “Leading Roles” and “Supporting Roles” receive: the chance to participate tuition-free in Paper Mill Playhouse’s inimitable Summer Musical Theatre Conservatory.  This five-week program is “designed to enhance performance skills, while instilling the technique, discipline and professionalism needed to excel in the performing arts,”  according to Paper Mill’s website. The culmination of the experience being a mainstage ensemble performance entitled New Voices. And the theme of this year’s New Voices performance, according to Director of Education, Lisa E. Cooney, is – you guessed it – “Everyone Loves an Underdog.” 

So, in shamelessly extending the aforementioned metaphor, it seems as if no matter who wins awards this Tuesday night, all nominees will be provided a pumpkin coach to an unforgettable experience.

Several weeks ago I had a chance to sit down with the “fairy godmother” in charge of this whole phenomenon, Ms. Cooney, to discuss the relationship between the Rising Star Awards and the Summer Musical Theatre Conservatory, and how both of these entities have synergized to create,

“…the biggest and best showcase of its kind in the country – a competitive program designed for those students seriously looking to get into the ‘biz’ … (and) be seen by a lot of New York City casting agents.” 

The reason Paper Mill draws some of the industry’s top representation? Just consider some of the names which have passed through this young talent pipeline: Anne Hathaway,  Laura Benanti, Shanice Williams, Robert McClure…the list goes on and on.   
A bit of background: back in February, four hundred students auditioned by appointment for one hundred available slots in the Summer Conservatory; fifty students age 15–18 were accepted to the “Senior Group,” and twenty five students were accepted into the “Junior” and “Junior-Plus” groups, ages 10–12 and 13–14 respectively. Students are primarily from New Jersey, but participants are not limited to Paper Mill’s home state. Students from Westchester County, New York are common, and the scope of auditioners becomes wider and wider with each passing year. 

Auditions were demanding, but Ms. Cooney and her staff do their due diligence to make sure every child feels as prepared and safe as possible for the experience. Auditions were made by appointment only, and the staff went so far as to provide this in-depth YouTube video on the proper etiquette and procedure of a successful audition. 

According to Ms. Cooney,

“The most important thing the auditioners can show us is that they can tell a story with their song. This is a new concept for many young performers. They are initially led to musical theater with their voices, but it is even more important that they are good actors. It’s the songs that advance the story in musical theater.  So, it is essential that these students have an innate musicality and can match pitch as a base…an initial anchor. On top of that, we want confident, fearless, smart kids who can listen and take direction. This is all very different than just ‘singing pretty.’  Paper Mill is known for its musicals; it’s our brand.” 

And it is this “brand” which keeps getting hotter and hotter with each passing year; as a result, the twenty eight individual performance nominees for this year’s Rising Star Awards who join the one hundred students already accepted into Summer Conservatory will be in for a truly intense experience; for brands are cultivated and protected, so each child who enters the Summer Conservatory is held to a tremendous standard. After all, according to Ms. Cooney, 60% of the house who attend New Voices performances are non-relatives to the performances – so the performance affects the theater’s reputation as much as it does the students’. 

To prepare students, the five-week New Voices rehearsal process reflects the pace and expectations of a real, professional stage production. Ms. Cooney states,

“One of the things we do is move in an extremely fast tempo – two-and-a-half to three weeks in studio, and then ‘open.’  There is no spoon feeding. Students record music once, learn it, and off book the next day.  Were we to hire you, that’s what we would expect.”    

Absences are not allowed, however Ms. Cooney says the policy is often moot. Most students tend to be so motivated they come to rehearsal even when they are sick. (In such cases, these students are promptly reassured and sent home to get better as soon as possible!) But to Ms. Cooney, the blood, sweat, and tears more than justify the final result:

 “The most rewarding aspect of all of this is we provide an opportunity for kids who do have the drive and passion to realize a dream and have a real experience, in a real production, on a real stage, working with real directors and a professional crew. For most of them it’s going to be their only quasi–professional credit going into college or new careers.  For these students, they see what it takes to succeed, how to get noticed, and employed by people like me. And by the way, no video can match the energy that is in the room the night of New Voices -- it’s unreal.  And when these parents see their kids do their stuff,  I see that look in the parents’ faces, as if  they’re saying ‘I didn’t know my kid had it in him!’ That’s what makes it all so worth it.”

Well, all of this said, we must remind ourselves that not only will this Tuesday’s Rising Star Awards be a performance spectacular, but since all individual performance nominees are invited to attend Summer Musical Theatre Conservatory, it may serve as a fitting preview of this year’s New Voices: Everyone Loves an Underdog performance.

And since this is the case, I hope you have the chance to see the 2017 Rising Star Award Ceremony this Tuesday night at the Paper Mill or the New Voices concert later this summer;  for if you do, you may just find yourself catching the opening act of Paper Mill Playhouse’s next big Cinderella story.

Special note:
Rising Star Awards – Presented by the Investors Foundation is also generously supported by the MetLife Foundation. Rising Star scholarships are made possible by Ruth Bedford in memory of Jane Burgio, Walt Santner in honor of Janet Sovey, and the Douglas Michael Krueger Scholarship Fund Trust. The Theatre for Everyone Inclusion and Access Award is supported by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance. This program is made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Richard McNanna



Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.