Why the Jimmy Awards Are Considered Broadway’s NFL Draft | Playbill

Special Features Why the Jimmy Awards Are Considered Broadway’s NFL Draft

Ahead of this year’s Jimmy Awards, we caught up with alums Eva Noblezada and Justin Cooley on why the program is pivotal for high schoolers looking to make a career on Broadway.

2023 Jimmy Awards nominees in Times Square Darin Chumbley

The Minskoff Theatre will be full of fresh faces on June 26 as the Broadway community celebrates the 14th Annual Jimmy Awards. Each year, the awards bring together high school students from 48 regional programs for a week of coaching sessions, training, and rehearsals, culminating in an evening of performance. At the end of the night, two students will be presented with awards for Best Performance by an Actress and Best Performance by an Actor. Several scholarships and additional honors will be awarded to the evening’s winners and finalists.

The Jimmy Awards, which is named after the late theatre owner James M. Nederlander and jokingly referred to as Broadway’s NFL draft, are notorious for helping young performers get discovered—stars like Reneé Rapp, Andrew Barth Feldman, Jai’Len Josey, and Kyle Selig were all Jimmy winners before making their Broadway debut. But you don’t have to be a winner to be noticed; just performing at the Minskoff is enough. Before all 96 of the 2023 nominees take the stage, Playbill caught up with Jimmy alumni Eva Noblezada and Justin Cooley, currently on Broadway as Eurydice in Hadestown and Seth in Kimberly Akimbo, respectively. Noblezada and Cooley were Jimmy Awards finalists in 2013 and 2021, which helped launch each of their careers. 

For Noblezada, her performance as a finalist caught the attention of casting director Tara Rubin, who arranged for Noblezada to audition for the West End revival of Miss Saigon. At just 17, Noblezada was cast as Kim, and later brought the role to Broadway, a lauded performance that earned her her first Tony nomination. Most recently, she originated the role of Eurydice in Hadestown on Broadway, which earned her another Tony nomination. 

“That week was kind of the best blur,” says Noblezada, who went to high school in North Carolina. “Experiencing the city, and getting to walk to where we were rehearsing every day through the city and just imagining, ‘This is what your life could be like, Eva, if we move to the city one day.’ It was really a week of the dreams that we all had being manifested.” Noblezada will be a presenter at Monday’s Jimmy Awards.

Cooley’s performance was also instrumental in his path to Broadway. As a finalist in the 2021 awards ceremony, held virtually due to the pandemic, his Jimmy experience looked much different than others. Cooley filmed his portion of a musical medley, as well as his finalist performance, from Kansas. “There was no traveling [to New York], everything was from home,” he says. “But I traveled around my city and my area, that gave us a small chance to show off where we come from, and how all these kids are gathering in a real way from across the country.” 

After the awards, Cooley received calls from casting agencies, and a request to film a self-tape for Kimberly Akimbo’s Off-Broadway run. Shortly thereafter, he was cast as Seth, where his performance would earn rave reviews, and the musical’s transfer gave him his Broadway debut plus a 2023 Tony nomination. 

“Going to the Jimmy Awards, you get exposure to a lot of people that are in the industry here in New York that you would never get otherwise,” says Cooley. “Like me, being from Kansas, I wasn’t sending out tapes to New York. I also didn’t really have the confidence or belief that I could do something like that. Because when you’re 17, in no world do you think that you could be booking a professional job halfway across the country.” 

Eva Noblezada and Justin Cooley

Cooley emphasizes that the Jimmy Awards are particularly important to the theatre industry, because they open the door for young artists—especially those who grow up in areas where theatre may not be as accessible. “It’s really bringing in an entire new set of voices and perspectives,” he says. “It’s opening up an entirely new palette of colors we can use to really cast kids. Because they have something to say, and there’s talent to be drawn from. To gather people from all across the country, it’s really an incredible thing. 

As successful Jimmy alums, what would Noblezada and Cooley say to this year’s nominees? “Try not to compare yourself to anyone else,” Noblezada advises. “As much as you’re going to push yourself to be incredible, and to better yourself, also show yourself the same amount of self-compassion and rest."

Adds Cooley: “It’s OK to be intimidated. It’s OK to be frightened. It’s a big thing. It’s a special thing. Remember to just open up and take in everything you can from the other Jimmy nominees, the judges, and the mentors. There’s so much to be learned and absorbed in that environment.” 

Monday’s ceremony is presented by The Broadway League Foundation, and hosted by Corbin Bleu. Noblezada will make an appearance herself as a presenter, along with Wicked’s McKenzie Kurtz. Guest coaches include Jenni Barber, Max Chernin, Maryann Hu, Adam Kantor, Telly Leung, Howard McGillin, and Desi Oakley. The awards are available to stream on YouTube and Facebook, beginning at 7:30 PM EST.

To learn more about the Jimmy Awards, watch the highlights from the 2022 "Jimmys week" below.

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