The bright lights of Broadway proved dazzling for 17-year-old Sam Shankman and Sabaa Sharma this summer. As winners of the Orpheum's High School Musical Theatre Awards for Best Lead Actor and Actress, the two teens spent a whirlwind week in New York City, competing for the Jimmy Awards, the high school equivalent to the Tony's Awards.
As part of the competition, the 60 regional winners worked with Broadway voice and dance coaches to stage a musical, where a panel of judges selected the grand prize winners.
Their most excellent adventure is chronicled in a new, Glee-like documentary, Broadway or Bust. The hour-long, three-part series airs this Sunday night at 7 p.m. on WKNO-TV (Ch. 10), and continues through September 23. It will be rebroadcast on Mondays, September 10-24 at 7 p.m. on WKNO2 on Channel 10.2 and on Comcast Cable Channel 910.
For Sam Shankman, a senior at Memphis University School, it was an amazing experience. "I had no idea what to expect. It was such an honor to be nominated from Memphis. But then you get to New York and you realize you're at the bottom of the dog pile. It was ridiculous how talented some of these teens were."
I had a chance to view the rough cut of the show, and if you want a strong argument for funding arts in the schools, this is it. You see both the exuberance and sense of awe these teens feel as they work together each day. While all were regional winners, competing against others of equal talent puts everyone's chops into perspective. It also becomes clear that talent alone won't earn you your keep here. Long rehersals require focus while being coached by some of the best — and most demanding talent — on Broadway.
"It was grueling, says Sabaa, a senior at Lausanne Collegiate School. "We were at the theatre by 8 a.m. and sometimes didn't finish until 11 p.m. that night, then we'd be back the next morning and have to sound 100 percent again — at 8 a.m. But we wound up feeling like family."
At times, there are tears, as each student pushes through exhaustion to do his or her best. Other times, they shine, as bright as the sun. As the week progresses, the teens gain valuable insight into how to draw out their best selves on stage. Says Sam,
"You can't compare yourself to others. It's not about being the best singer, it's about what makes you unique. You have to have confidence in yourself as an individual; it's about my potential as Sam Shankman."
Both of these Memphians share music and theatre backgrounds. Sam got his start with Playhouse on the Square's POTS summer camp program and as a second-grader landed his first role in Peter Pan. He's since acted in various shows, including The Drowsy Chaperone and The Producers, for which he won Best Actor. Though Sabaa has taken voice lessons, it was only last year that she tried out for a musical — at her mother's urging. She wound up landing the lead role in Once on This Island, which lead to her win at the Orpheum. Sabaa also plays piano and has performed in the Germantown Youth Symphony.
Now that they're seniors, both students are busy with college applications and hope to continue in the performing arts. Sam has his sites set on acting at Emerson College in Boston; Sabaa is considering classical voice or film scoring at NYU or Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Before they take flight, you can still see them live this fall; Sabaa will be performing in Lausanne's The Crucible, and Sam in Hutchison School's Into the Woods. Good luck to you all.