SALT LAKE CITY — Although Ethan Kelso is 18 years old and just graduated from high school in June, he’s already won a prestigious Broadway award. The 2019 Jimmy Awards, also called the National High School Musical Theater Awards, took place June 24 at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre and Kelso, a Salt Lake City native, walked away with best performance by an actor, the competition's top award.
“It was unreal,” Kelso told the Deseret News about his Jimmy win. “My first reaction was like, ‘Is this really happening to me?’ I went down on the floor a little bit and took a breath. And then I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to go up and get the award.’”
Kelso, who performs Aug. 2 with Jaks Theatre Company at the group's annual senior recital, has a history of getting up when things feel overwhelming, and he has often turned to music to help him through.
While the win at the Jimmys was a happy moment, Kelso has dealt with many difficult times for someone so young. When he was only 3, his father passed away.
“My mother kind of went off the deep end with drugs and substance abuse (afterwards),” Kelso said. “So my sister and I would sing to kind of like, cope with everything and make the time pass.”
Kelso and his sister were placed in foster care by the state and eventually adopted by their grandparents. “They found out we could sing, and then they had a friend who was doing shows and stuff,” Kelso said. “They asked us if we wanted to do musical theater and we said 'yes.'”
Kelso’s first foray into musical theater was with Jaks Theatre Company when he was 8 years old.
“I just never went back,” he said. “It was so amazing and I loved musical theater. I just finished 'Les Mis' a few weeks ago with that company.”
For his first year of high school, Kelso went to Judge Memorial Catholic High School. However, after his freshman year, Kelso and his family learned about Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts from a neighbor. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” Kelso said. “I switched over my sophomore year and I loved it, so I stayed.”
SLSPA students do their core academic classes at Highland High School and spend their time at SLSPA focusing on the arts. Professional artists and performers in the visual arts, dance, music and theater teach the classes.
“I took dance and musical theater and choir, things like that,” Kelso explained. “It’s small, and it’s a family. You get this amazing learning experience from all these teachers who have been in the business and have worked professionally in what they teach.”
As a senior at SLSPA this past year, Kelso was in the school’s production of "Big Fish," playing Will Bloom, whose complicated relationship with his father pushes both of them to the edge. His role as Will has been Kelso’s favorite part so far.
“(He was) the character I related to the most, and I got into character so much better than I have ever gotten into a character,” Kelso said. “And I think that fact is what pushed me to the next level. It was kind of a special thing that I got (to do).”
SLSPA participates in the annual Utah High School Musical Theatre Awards, so during the production of "Big Fish," judges came to rate the performance as a whole and the actors involved to find contestants for the final competition, which takes place at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City every year.
“You have judges that go around to the schools … and then from that, you have more judges who watch a filming of the show,” Kelso said.
Kelso was nominated for best actor along with nine other boys performing lead roles in their high schools’ shows. The 10 nominees performed at the Eccles in May and Kelso won best actor, which meant a chance to go to New York City and compete for the National Musical Theatre Awards with 85 other promising high school students from around the country.
More than a competition
But the Jimmy Awards are more than just a competition. Nominees spend 10 days in New York working with Broadway choreographers and coaches for their performances at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre on the night of the Jimmys.
And every year, the nominees perform a big opening number of Broadway medleys together.
Nominees also audition for and are assigned to various other medley numbers where groups of students showcase their singing, dancing and acting skills. Finally, each nominee gets a chance to hone a solo with a Broadway coach, and a select group of finalists perform their solos the night of the awards. Keslo was one of those chosen to perform his solo — “Wondering” from the 2014 musical "The Bridges of Madison County" — on the Minskoff stage.
“You go to rehearsals and personals every single day all day,” Kelso said. “It’s fun, but it’s hard work. It’s a little tiring.”
Because of the time the nominees spend together, the 10-day event is something of a crossover between a summer camp and a competition. “Every single one of those people become your best friends,” Kelso said. “So you don’t even think about the competition. It’s so cool, because you have all these amazingly talented people, and … nobody goes to win.”
For Kelso, getting to the Jimmys was enough. “I didn’t think I was going to win,” he said. “Everyone’s so happy for you either way because you went to the Jimmys, which is a huge deal.”
Although he wasn’t expecting to win, Kelso’s talent and dedication caught the judges’ attention, and he won best performance by an actor, one of the Jimmys’ highest awards alongside best performance by an actress. “It was like an out-of-body experience,” he said. “It was so humbling and such an honor.”
So, what’s next for Kelso, now that he's graduated and has this win under his belt? He’s not quite sure. “I’ve got a few offers from a few different people that I’m mulling over, and we’ll see,” he said. He plans to attend the University of Hartford Hartt School in the fall, and he has a few performances coming up. As a Jimmy winner, he's performing at BroadwayCon in 2020, a three-day convention for musical fans, and was asked to sing at the next Pronoun Showdown — an event where Broadway singers reverse the pronouns of classic Broadway songs — at New York's Feinstein’s/54 Below, a Broadway supper club.
However, before he heads off to college and beyond, Kelso has one last hometown show. On Aug. 2, he will make his last appearance with Jaks Theatre Company as part of the group's annual senior recital, where he and others will sing a variety of Broadway songs — songs that have helped him through some of the most difficult times in his life, especially when he gets to sing them onstage, in front of an appreciative audience.
"When I’m onstage, I connect on a very deep and personal level with the audience. They learn something about me and I learn something about them," Kelso said. "It is truly beautiful and, in my opinion, the pinnacle of human connection."
If you go …
What: “Thanks for the Memories" featuring JAKS Senior Performers including 2019 Jimmy Award winner Ethan Kelso
When: Friday, Aug. 2, 8 p.m.
Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South
How much: $18