High school musicals in DFW becoming ever more elaborate

Each year for the past decade, students from Tarrant County's finest theater programs have competed in the Betty Lynn Buckley Awards, given annually for outstanding performances in high school musicals.

While the individual winners in a variety of categories get $500 in scholarships, the awards also give instant credibility and prestige to theater programs -- something akin to district championships in football.

Theater directors and students fully understand what's at stake. Directors are choosing to tackle more difficult shows, spending tens of thousands of dollars on productions that include intricate choreography, labor-intensive sets and complex lighting sequences. Serious-minded students spend hours practicing, some using voice and dance coaches, to give them a leg up during auditions.

Offstage, booster clubs sell corporate sponsorships, produce glossy programs -- complete with student photos and bios -- and peddle a variety of merchandise at performances.

The bar has definitely been raised, theater watchers say.

"The caliber of the shows has gone out the roof," said Norma Burks, Buckley head judge and program coordinator. "If you go to some of these shows, you would think you'd seen something on Broadway."

Stacie Martinsen, theater director at Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, said the Buckleys have "had a huge effect on high school theater. Knowing we are going to be adjudicated, I think everyone knows we're going to take it up a notch because we are going to be looked at."

Even Buckley, a Tony Award-winning actress, has taken notice: "The qualities of the productions are getting better and better."

Lots of people, lots of time

When students audition for high school musicals, they are committing to weeks of practices that can be highly regimented and include time on the weekend, especially as performances draw near. And it's not just actors: Dozens of students get involved building sets, working lights, making costumes and playing in the orchestra.

It's the same scenario -- minus the orchestra -- for one-act plays, a separate competition that is sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League.

Birdville High School performed the 1950s-era Bye Bye Birdie in January, an endeavor that included a 60-member cast and 30-member orchestra. The cast rehearsed about two hours every day after school, on Saturdays and during winter break before performing to sold-out crowds, theater director Christopher Williamson said.

In addition to building sets, learning songs and memorizing lines, some in the Carroll cast of White Christmas had to learn to tap dance.

At Central High School in the Keller district, where students are rehearsing the one-act play Glory Days, boys in the cast arrive before school for conditioning exercises -- so they can better look the part of steelworkers. Central finished second in the Class 5A state competition last year.

"Competitions breed success," said David Stevens, the Keller district's fine arts director. "When you know there's a prize at the end, you're going to work harder, make things better and put out quality theater and musical theater. It's that recognition, exposure and positive PR that everyone hopes to achieve."

The Buckleys also fuel a spirit of competition among the schools. Students often go see shows at other schools to find out what others are up to, theater directors said.

"We want to see how it ranks -- how is it being viewed by someone other than your mom and dad," said Carroll's Martinsen.

The Buckleys are not, however, the sole inspiration for theater programs.

"Getting nominated for a Buckley is a byproduct from doing a fantastic show," said Kim Blann, theater director at Central. "I tell them, 'We don't do the show because we want to win a trophy.'"

Directors want students to remember that musicals are a learning activity. And they encourage students to earn scholarships in drama and related fields. At Central, for example, a class has been started to help students prepare for college auditions, Blann said.

Thousands of dollars

Because high school theater programs vary widely, the Buckleys split certain categories based on budgets each year. This year's budget categories for student-designed lighting, costumes and sets haven't been set since not all schools have finished staging their musicals.

Carroll brought in a 600-pound chandelier from Germany when it became the first high school theater to stage The Phantom of the Opera in December 2007.

Fresh from winning the best-musical Buckley Award for The Pajama Game in spring 2007, Carroll was chosen as one of six schools in the nation to stage Phantom to provide feedback on whether the script and score are too difficult for student theater. Carroll spent $75,000 on the production, mostly on expensive costumes and elaborate period-based stages.

But because it was a pilot, Carroll's production of Phantom was not eligible to participate in the 2008 Buckleys.

"This is where I'll be perceived as some type of over-spender, but the truth is, with a production like Phantom, we had 17 different scene locations and a script that mandated that a chandelier fly over the audience," Martinsen said.

It cost Carroll $20,000 to $25,000 to stage White Christmas, which included renting 13 snow machines that turned the auditorium into a winter wonderland.

Central staged Flight of the Lawnchair Man in December for about $8,000, Blann said. That included $3,000 to rent equipment to fly lead actor Travis Threlkeld across the stage in a lawn chair.

"I was up there for roughly 45 minutes," said Threlkeld, 17, a senior. "It was really, really cool."

Schools contribute some money for productions, but much of the cost is covered by fundraisers -- including selling corporate sponsorships -- ticket sales, concessions and playbill ads, directors and boosters say.

The costs also keep some schools from entering the Buckleys. Michael Ryan, executive director of fine arts for the Fort Worth district, said its high schools generally don't have the budgets or facilities to compete in the Buckleys but are working with community theater groups to strengthen their programs.

Yet, while high-dollar special effects certainly add entertainment value, productions don't have to load up with bells and whistles to win a Buckley.

"No matter what the budget is, no matter what fancy props you have, it all comes down to good theater," said Stephen Madrid, Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts spokesman. The academy, home to the Texas Boys Choir, won the 2005 Buckley for best musical for its production of Singin' in the Rain.

The junior Tonys

For this year's Buckley contest, 19 public and private schools have signed up to participate. Nine judges with theater expertise will attend the performances and review video clips before voting in 16 award categories, including best musical, best male and female actor and excellence in choreography.

Students dress in formalwear for the ceremony and give speeches if they win. Some casts, typically nominees for best musical, get to perform a number for their peers, scrambling to re-create it months after originally staging the show. Award presenters have included well-known actors such as Lou Diamond Phillips and Jensen Ackles.

"It's exactly like a junior version of the Tonys," said Joe Sturgeon, Casa Mañana's director of theatre for youth.

Birdville High School won best musical for The Boyfriend last year and has entered its January production of Bye Bye Birdie in this year's contest.

"It does make a big difference to say, 'Hey, they won best high school musical.' The theater begins to get that reputation that it's a good show," said Gena Foster, president of the Birdville High School theater boosters. "More people are becoming aware of it, and more people are going to support the arts. There is a prestige when your school wins a Buckley -- they obviously do good shows."