‘Tonys for teens’ high school theater nominees discuss how ‘vital’ Broadway is to young people

Sophia O’Brien has been a theater nut since fifth grade. Liam Ginsburg caught the acting bug more recently.

Both high school students are in the running for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, known as the Jimmy Awards, two of 92 nominees who will be honored on Broadway when awards are given out Monday, starting at 7:30 p.m. at the Minskoff Theater.

They have been preparing their award-show performances all week at the Juilliard School.

‘tonys for teens’ high school theater nominees discuss how ‘vital’ broadway is to young people

Sophia O’Brien rehearses at Juilliard in preparation for the Jimmy Awards. Jim (Sandy Shelton/Sandy Shelton)

“It’s always been a big part of my dreams and aspirations since I started in theater in fifth grade,” said Sophia, who will be a senior this fall. “I’ve always been a theater kid.”

She launched her stage career at age 10 playing Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Her Jimmy nomination is for playing Éponine Thénardier in a production of “Les Miserables” at Fordham Prep in the Bronx. Sophia attends School of the Holy Child in Rye, N.Y., and lives farther north in Dutchess County.

Liam made his performance debut just this year, playing the lead in his high school’s production of “Bright Star,” the 2016 Broadway musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Liam played Billy Cane.

“He’s simple to the eye but yet a little deeply complicated,” said the young student at a high school in Westchester County.

‘tonys for teens’ high school theater nominees discuss how ‘vital’ broadway is to young people

Liam Ginsburg rehearses at Juilliard in preparation for the show on Monday, June 27, 2022, at the Minskoff Theatre. (Sandy Shelton/Sandy Shelton)

The Roger Rees Awards for Excellence in Student Performance — nicknamed the “Tonys for Teens’ ― were their ticket to the Jimmys, and the two could not be more excited.

“It is an absolute — it is such a privilege, it is such an honor,” Liam told the Daily News of his nomination.

The Jimmy Award is named in honor of Broadway theatre owner and producer James M. Nederlander. First given out in 2009, the awards are given annually to recognize musical theatre performances by high school students in the United States. Two main awards are given each year, Best Performance by an Actress and Best Performance by an Actor.

Both teens lauded their acting coaches, drama teachers and parents.

“They showed me everything; they taught me it all this year, and that is what got me to the next level,” Liam said of his leap into the craft.

Sophia has been taking acting classes and voice lessons since she was 10, seeking out workshops even during summer vacations. Along with her teachers and their mentorship, she credited her mom with driving her wherever she needs to go to perfect her acting.

“Without theater I wouldn’t be as confident as I am today,” she told The News. “I think theater is vital for young people to experience. They’ll never get a similar experience anywhere themselves.”

It gives you good instincts and brings you into a story in a way that reading about it cannot, she said.

“It’s an opportunity for spontaneous thinking,” Sophia said, adding it also provides an instant community, a form of expression and an outlet all in one. “Theater educates young people by giving them a chance to experiment, by giving them a chance to mess up and it’s OK.”

The audience is just as integral, she said.

“One of the most emotional experiences of my life is watching human beings convey a story to you, and you receive it,” said Sophia, who has seen many Broadway shows. “Watching a Broadway show is the epitome of feeling.”

The awards will be given out amid performances by the student nominees, the Jimmy Awards said in a statement, with winners chosen by a panel of experts. The sold-out show will be live-streamed.

This is the first in-person Jimmy Awards show since the pandemic shut things down, making the atmosphere all the more “electric,” Liam said.. The 92 student performer nominees were culled from 46 regional high school musical theater awards ceremonies presented by members of the Broadway League, the 700-member national trade association for the Broadway industry.

“Right now Broadway is rebounding from three years of isolation,” Sophia said excitedly. “It’s just getting back on its feet and getting its bearings of the world.”

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