No Business Like Show Business

New Albany High School’s spring musical earns recognition at the prestigious High School Musical Theatre Awards at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis.

Written by Clint Kimberling | Photographed Tarver Reeder

For high school theater departments, selecting the spring production is an important decision. There are hundreds of possibilities, with considerations for budget and logistics making it even more complicated. This was especially true for New Albany High School — because this year, the production, “Seussical,” was up for consideration in the prestigious Orpheum Theatre High School Musical Theatre Awards.

Entering the competition for the Orpheum awards isn’t done on a whim; there is a long application process. Each musical in the running to compete undergoes an adjudication process by industry professionals from the Memphis community, who attend the local high school productions. HSMTA judges came unannounced to New Albany’s Sunday matinee performance of “Seussical” in February of this year.

NAHS’s production of “Seussical,” directed by theater teacher and musical director Mary Beth Muncie, involved over 100 students. That included not only the cast but also costume, hair and makeup, lighting and stage crews. Clearly the judges were impressed — NAHS garnered eight nominations for their production, in several different categories.

After the nominations were announced in April, the students began preparing for the awards ceremony held at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis. The ceremony, which is modeled after the Tony Awards right down to the pre-show red carpet event, is an evening of performances and awards presentations.

For some students, the evening involves more than just sitting in the audience hoping their name is called. It’s also a chance to get back in character and perform their starring role one more time. Those nominated in performance categories travel to Memphis a week in advance of the big night for a round of intense rehearsals with Orpheum theater professionals as well as other musical theater students from across the region.

Laura Ruth Welborn, nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress for her role as Gertrude McFuzz, earned NAHS’s only individual performance nomination. Welborn is a rising junior; “Seussical” is just her second high school theater production, and the first where she had a starring role.

“It was an amazing experience to work at Orpheum,” Welborn said.

Welborn rehearsed with the other six outstanding lead actress nominees for an awards night medley in which she sang “All For You.” With less than a week to polish the performance, a typical rehearsal day that week started in the afternoon and continued late into the evening, with very few breaks.

“We quickly developed a real community atmosphere,” Welborn said. “It was very special to be a part of and we all cheered each other on.”

Emma Reid, also a rising junior at NAHS, performed in the opening and closing numbers of the awards show. Reid played Mayzie LaBird; the song “Amayzing Mayzie” was recognized for outstanding production number. Reid, who has been performing since she was very young, also participates in musical productions at Blue Mountain College and the Magnolia Civic Center.

“I love the feeling of performing,” Reid said. “It’s exhilarating, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a lead or in the ensemble. The feeling of giving joy to the audience is indescribable.”

NAHS senior R.J. Rutherford has had a role in productions in each of his high school years. Rutherford, who starred as Horton, and also got to perform on awards night, plans to continue acting when he attends Mississippi State University next year.

“It was an amazing show that we put a lot of work into,” Rutherford said. “I’m glad I was able to do it before graduating. It’s fun to get on stage, to make people laugh or smile. It’s a great feeling for me.”

While Welborn, Reid and Rutherford did not hear their names called, the experience was about more than just awards and accolades. Welborn summed it up in the value of the community aspect that the theater department provides.

“The whole school is involved,” Welborn said. “It’s really special the way everyone comes together. I get to know people in a different way and even meet new friends.”

And New Albany did not go home empty-handed. The school received the award for Outstanding Small Ensemble, The Bird Girls.

Welborn and Reid are excited about the possibility of returning to Memphis for the awards next year. The big spring production has yet to be decided on, although some possibilities have been kicked around.

“I’m one hundred percent on board for whatever we decide to put on,” Welborn said.

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