Broadway beckons budding Spirit Lake star
It was a year of firsts for Spirit Lake High School thespians — a new director, a new competition and a trip to New York for one of their own. Junior Anna Ascheman was selected at the Iowa High School Musical Theatre Awards Showcase to travel to New York and represent her state at the national competition — nicknamed the Jimmy Awards — and perform on Broadway.
Spirit Lake's first-year vocal music teacher and drama director Luke Miller said the school originally didn't have a musical production scheduled for the fall. That changed when he successfully lobbied for an annual musical, rather than the district's customary biannual production.
Players in the fall production of "Once Upon a Mattress" also volunteered for some extra scrutiny in November 2017. The production was evaluated for the state award competition — another first, according to Miller. The awards are intended to give young casts and crews feedback as they strive for better productions and build on theatrical strengths.
"It's been good because the students know they're being judged and, when they know they're being judged, they step up their game a little more," Miller said. "It's one more carrot."
The carrots kept coming.
The school theater department received awards for "outstanding overall performance," "outstanding student orchestra" and "special recognition for ensemble." In addition, the school was able to send a group of students to the state-level showcase, which took place June 4 in the Des Moines Civic Center. Students Greta Goodlaxon, Tanner Thomsen and Ruby O'Hagan trained under Broadway professionals to perform a medley with students from 68 other schools.
"Those guys spent three rehearsals learning their choreography and their vocals," Miller said.
Ascheman and fellow student Nate Walsh were also selected to perform an excerpt from the fall production. The pair put forth their best singing, dancing and acting skills as they auditioned for the showcase's Triple Threat Award.
Overall, Miller stressed the awards were not due to the efforts of only a few.
"The kids have been very open to working hard with the understanding that hard work is going to get them the success they want," Miller said. "You can tell they're not just doing this for awards, they're doing it because they love it."
Of course, awards are nice to have too.
By the end of the showcase, Ascheman took the state's Triple Threat title, along with Jacob Nuti of Dubuque's Wahlert Catholic School. Ascheman left Monday to prepare for the performance before representing Iowa at the Jimmy Awards on June 25.
Ascheman said she has been dancing since early childhood when she would improvise a costume and mimic the dancers in the musical "Cats." She continued to broaden her skill set as she grew and was very pleased to be able to perform in Des Moines this month.
"To be able to stand on stage with a mic in hand is one of the coolest opportunities a high schooler can have," she said.
She compared the award to a state sports title. The junior said she has competed in state choir and tennis competitions, but this month's competition is on an entirely different level.
"I think this is the biggest accomplishment ever," she said. "Nothing compares with going to Broadway."
And as excited as she was to stand on the stage of the Des Moines Civic Center, she is heavily anticipating her performance on Broadway's Minskoff Stage — which she said runs a production of "The Lion King" nearly every night on Broadway. Acheman will spend nine days rehearsing before the performance. Miller said Ascheman will be performing "In a Little While" from the school production of "Once Upon a Mattress" and "Vanilla Ice Cream" from the musical "She Loves Me" on the national stage. She will also be part of a number of medleys with her fellow Triple Threat recipients.
Miller said he hasn't seen the competing talent, but expects Acheman will give it her all.
"Knowing Anna, she's going to work incredibly hard to put herself in the best situation to finish at the top," Miller said, adding hard work is simply part of Ascheman's character.
Ascheman has indeed been preparing for her big night by singing on her own and working with her instructor Jessica Schable, whom she largely credits for her vocal success thus far. She said the tutelage of her various teachers, particularly her work with Broadway professionals, will improve her acting skills even after the New York competition is finished.
She's particularly excited to have the chance to meet and work with the event's hostess Tony Award winner Laura Benanti. "Vanilla Ice Cream" was Benanti's number in the Broadway production of "She Loves Me," and Ascheman said she feels a faint connection to the starlet because of the overlapping repertoire.
"Getting to go this year when she's the host is so cool," Ascheman said.
But she said she's trying to come to the competition with a level head and relish the experience as a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity as she goes into her senior year of high school.
"I'm just going in there super excited," she said. "Not everyone can say they can go to Broadway and have this opportunity. Of course, I'm going to try, but I'm not going to let that get to me."
The results of the competition will be announced live at the event as they were in Des Moines. The night's festivities will be shown live at 6:30 p.m. central time June 25 online at facebook.com/JimmyAwards. Ascheman said this is the first year the competition will be also broadcast live over social media.