Behind the Scenes: The 2016 Tommy Awards

October 24, 2016 Jonna Mayberry Leave a Comment

The 2016 Tommy Awards premieres 8 p.m. tonight, Monday, Oct. 24 on WPT.  Take a look behind the scenes in this blog post by Young Performers Initiative project manager Megan Aley. (Can’t wait for tonight’s broadcast? Watch the full program online now.)

The stage is enormous. Lights glare down, blindingly bright, and the audience seems to go on forever in endless rising rows. Nerves manifest themselves in sweaty palms or a dry mouth and are seemingly overpowering. But then the music starts the months of rehearsals kick in. Words that have long been memorized and dance steps drilled into muscles occur almost without command. And when the song is over and each solo has been sung, the thrill of uproarious applause makes every ounce of nerves, every long day of rehearsals, every blister from dance shoes worn for hours on end, and every sore throat from singing too long and too loud, completely worthwhile.

Behind the scenes, students rush to and fro down narrow hallways, gathering in groups to pep talk or standing alone, eyes closed, mentally preparing for their solo, before walking out on stage. A backstage loading dock acts as a holding area for upcoming acts. Show tunes meld into each other in that large echo chamber. Into the Woods merges with Grease before the sound of West Side Story floats above the rest. Then the click-clacking of tap shoes grows louder and louder as a group of students begins to practice choreography. Soon it drowns everything else out. The energy is slightly jittery and nervous but above all, joyful. The Tony Awards plays on a TV in a dressing room, the aspiration for many students. But the love of the music is in the hearts of all the students, even if they don’t aspire for that larger stage. They will carry that with them for the rest of their lives.

A Wisconsin Public Television camera skirts the edge of groups, capturing the laughter, the pep talks, the nervous tapping feet and post-performance hugs.  The students are incredibly eloquent and reflective as they speak on camera about their experiences and the importance of music in their lives. Many seniors just graduated the day before; still, others skipped their graduation in order to perform. The Tommy’s is more important, they say. All their friends are here, and besides, musical theater is what mattered most to them throughout high school. At the end of the night, each student receives a shiny gold trophy, a figurine holding up a star to be displayed proudly at home, in a bedroom or on a mantelpiece for years to come.

It is a difficult task to capture such a unique event. Each performance shines, and every student has an interesting anecdote to tell. Every school has its own story of how their show came to win a Tommy Award. Small communities rallied around their schools and students, pulling together to achieve polished and high-quality performances despite all obstacles set in their path. What isn’t difficult for the WPT producers is the task of helping the television audience fall in love with and connect with the student participants. Their vibrancy, enthusiasm and talent shine through the screen just as much as it shines on stage.

The WPT production, The 2016 Tommy Awards, highlights the phenomenal school performances. Medleys of songs from well-known shows, to obscure ones that will likely become new favorites. The outstanding soloists shine through, showing their passion, enthusiasm and musicality and most of all, why they won a Tommy Award.

After the show is over and the cameras are packed up, the real work begins back at WPT. Hours of footage must be sorted, from the rehearsals earlier in the week, to the multiple student interviews and behind-the-scenes shots. Much like composing a piece of music, the correct tempo and rhythm must be achieved for the show, capturing the energy of performances and the slower reflective moments of interviews, all while maintaining the momentum and building the story of the Tommy Awards. The music from the show stays stuck in the heads of the production team throughout the duration of the editing process, and will float back in again unbidden months later. The end result of all the hard work, both of the students and the crew and producers at WPT, is a fantastic show that captures the energy and one-of-a-kind experience that is the Tommy Awards.

Whether it is their first time or their last, the experience of participating in the Tommy Awards is undeniably unique. From the freshman performing in their first musical to the seniors who have raked in numerous Tommy Awards over their high school career, that moment of walking out onto the stage at Overture is one of a kind. And seeing it all again on television makes the experience even more special, a chance to relive the pride, the thrill, the joy. And for everyone who has ever sung along to a piece of music, or felt moved by a heartfelt performance, or was impressed by the hard work and determination of young people, The  2016Tommy Awards broadcast is for you.

The 2016 Tommy Awards broadcast celebrates excellence in musical theater by featuring top performances from the annual award ceremony, held in June at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Award-winning performers include full-cast production numbers, as well as lead and supporting performers. This year, the Overture Center reviewed a total of 77 high school musicals in 20 counties across Wisconsin.

Funding for The 2016 Tommy Awards is provided by Julie and Larry Midtbo, Mary Ellyn and Joe Sensenbrenner, the A. Paul Jones Charitable Trust and Friends of Wisconsin Public Television.

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