Around The Town

The Roger Rees Awards

By: Iris Wiener

May 20, 2024: Some of Broadway’s most talented artists came out to support the Roger Rees Awards for Excellence in Student Performance on May 19 at The Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College. It was because of the warm memories they have of Rees and the indelible impression he left on them that host Bonnie Milligan (Kimberly Akimbo) and judges including actor Erich Bergen (Waitress) and choreographer/educator Baayork Lee were on hand to celebrate the talent of young performers.

Bonnie Milligan, Ashlee Fucarino, Isaiah Baston, and Rick Elice. Photo: Iris Wiener

By: Iris Wiener

May 20, 2024: Some of Broadway’s most talented artists came out to support the Roger Rees Awards for Excellence in Student Performance on May 19 at The Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College. It was because of the warm memories they have of Rees and the indelible impression he left on them that host Bonnie Milligan (Kimberly Akimbo) and judges including actor Erich Bergen (Waitress) and choreographer/educator Baayork Lee were on hand to celebrate the talent of young performers.

Co-sponsored by Disney Theatrical Group and the Broadway production of Back to the Future, the event featured more than 100 high school student performers, singers, and musicians representing 74 New York schools. Wantagh High School’s Ashlee Fucarino and Bay Shore Senior High School’s Isaiah Baston won Outstanding Performance in a Musical for their songs from Jekyll & Hyde and Children of Eden, respectively. Judges looked at 50 student nominees who performed in qualifying roles in high school productions, and were chosen following a complex adjudication process. Fucarino and Baston will represent the Greater New York region at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as The Jimmy Awards, on June 24th at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. 

Baayork Lee Photo: Kimberly Larkin.

“I sang ‘A New Life,’ which was a special song to me because I listened to the music from Jekyll & Hyde growing up with my momand she always said, ‘You’re going to play this part one day,’” recalled winner Fucarino, moments after being selected for the evening’s top honor. “For it to have happened was so special. I feel like I connected with the song so much, and it was my favorite one to sing when I was performing at school. To get to perform it again in this way was an honor. I want to thank all of my educators and vocal coaches because they’re really who brought me to the place where I am today.”

“It’s beautiful to uplift the talent,” said Milligan of her role as host. “I was being told about how the Roger Rees Awards [did an] equitable outreach to kids from many different neighborhoods. I grew up in a doublewide trailer in the Midwest in a school with 30 kids in each grade. There was nothing like this that was available to me!” Milligan recently finished her Tony Award-winning performance in Kimberly Akimbo, which also saw a Tony nod go to her young co-star Justin Cooley, a contestant in youth competitions as well. “He was a Jimmy Awards finalist from Kansas,” she said, considering the significance this event holds for young artists. “I think it’s an incredible way to find talent across the United States who might not have the money to fly to New York to go to an audition. These awards get to spotlight so much talent. It’s amazing!”

Ashlee Fucarino and Isaiah Baston.
Photo: Iris Wiener

Outstanding performer judge Tom Viertel, who is a producer for Back to the Future, was also excited for the opportunity because of his fondness for Future’s lead actor, 2019 Jimmy Award nominee Casey Likes. “He is from this competition system and has the kind of charisma that the Roger Rees nominees have,” he said. There’s more young talent than ever before. I think drama programs in schools are stronger than they have been, and seeing these types of contests creating an opportunity for people with extraordinary talent showcases what they can do at a very young age.”

Baayork Lee reflected on getting her start at the age of 5 when she performed opposite Yul Brynner in Broadway’s The King and I. Because of her limited access to theatre and a lack of representation of her culture, she began The National Asian Artists Project, which partners with an elementary school in Chinatown. “Arts Education is really important,” she said, considering the gravity of students being able to showcase their hard work in high school productions. “I usually work with children at the lower level, ages 8 to 11. Now here I am at the Roger Rees Awards, which is the high school level, hoping my kids will grow up to really love theatre and want to be in it! These kids are inspiring.”

Lauren Marchand & Ashlee Fucarino.
Photo: Iris Wiener

Everyone involved in the special evening gratefully took time to reflect on the Awards’ namesake. “I was lucky enough to know Roger Rees and got to see his work many times,” says Bergen of his personal connection with the extraordinary performer. “Roger was one of those artists who comes along once in a generation. I try to do anything I can to make sure the next generation of artists knows who he is because his work is astounding.”

Rees’ husband, Rick Elice (currently Tony-nominated for writing Water for Elephants), had close friend and Rees’ The Visit co-star Chita Rivera on his mind throughout the evening. “She would say of the Awards, ‘Why aren’t they named after me?’ And Roger would say, ‘You have your own Awards, darling!’” Elice said, chuckling as he remembered Rees and Rivera’s vibrant sense of humor. Rivera was the first to present Roger Rees Award winners with their trophies in 2015. (Rivera passed away in January.) “He would be terribly embarrassed about this because he was a very modest person. When he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was about the same age as the kids performing tonight. He was taken under the wing of great actors and he never went to drama school. Later, he was able to do the same for the generation behind him. He was very invested in education and mentoring and he really believed in paying it forward.”

Bonnie Milligan Photo: Kimberly Larkin
Erich Bergen & Merri Sugarman.
Photo: Kimberly Larkin

Rees would be overjoyed to learn that in the 2023-2024 season, the Roger Rees Awards began a partnership with New York City Center; the esteemed organization introduced an Outstanding Scenic and Costume Design Award. Additionally, they selected a student orchestra to play at the exciting event. 

Roger left an indelible impression on me,” said Jenny Gersten, a judge and the VP & Producer of Musical Theater at New York City Center. “I conflate craft-especially the craft of a young person who is preternaturally talented-with Roger’s name. It makes sense to me that this award exists.”

Rick Elice & Jenny Gersten. Kimberly Larkin
Tom Viertel Photo: Kimberly Larkin