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South Salt Lake Journal

Cottonwood High snags best orchestra from Utah High School Musical Theatre Awards

Aug 17, 2020 03:26PM ● By Julie Slama

Cottonwood High’s orchestra pit of “Matilda” recently won best orchestra performance from the Utah High School Musical Theatre Awards. (Amber Tuckness/Cottonwood High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In a typical year a packed theater of high school students eagerly await the announcement of the Utah High School Musical Theatre Awards; this year instead had them at home watching screens.

In a world that has gone virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first-ever live streaming of the awards show, presented by the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, announced state winners, including Cottonwood High for best orchestra performance in the fall 2019’s performances of “Matilda.”

Perhaps one of the only ones who wasn’t intently watching online was Cottonwood High’s instrumental director, Amber Tuckness, who immediately learned of the honor through social media and texts from friends.

“I immediately sent an email to my students afterward, telling them how proud I was of them,” she said. “It’s a nice recognition, and I’m thankful that they were honored. We had a huge pit full of musicians and this award validates us. So many high schools don’t have live pit orchestras anymore, but we do and that is one of the reasons our musicals are so successful. Recorded music is not the same feel and it’s harder for the actors.”

Tuckness said that typically pit orchestra students are learning music on their own time; it is not part of their grade. Rehearsals may take 50 hours in advance and then, another 10 days of practicing with the actors.

“We make it fun and have each day follow a theme. For example, this year, with ‘Matilda,’ we had a yellow theme day in honor of Miss Honey and even ate honey snacks. We always have quesadillas in the pit and play trivia and just have it be a fun, bonding experience,” she said.

Tuckness said that after the judges watched their performance, they came to the stage and talked to the students.

“The kids got the immediate feedback from the judges and got complimented on providing live music to the show. It was a fun show to do,” she said. “I’m glad they did the virtual awards ceremony; it was one less thing to take away from the kids this school year.”

Cottonwood wasn’t the only area school to be recognized. Hillcrest High tied for best choreography with “42nd Street” and Anthony Tibolla of Juan Diego Catholic High won best supporting actor.

It was Hillcrest High’s first time winning best choreography, said Chelsea Lujan, dance teacher and choreographer for the show.

“Once we decided on the show, I let the kids take the initiative to learn the (tap) steps,” she said. “If they learned them by August, then they would be on stage in the musical. Some of them watched videos, some took classes and some already knew how to tap so when we came together in the fall, we had a core group who could help teach the rest of the cast.”

About 90 cast members—productions company, dance company and 30 other dedicated students—provided extra help for other 80 members of the chorus, who found themselves dancing in the aisles during the performances.

“We had tappers helping non-tappers and they fed off each other and got more and more excited. They wanted to do their absolute best and succeed. They know what a Hillcrest musical is and our expectations and they put forth that effort, work hard and value that to create something that is spectacular. What was fun about the students learning it was hearing students tap in the hallways, shuffle under their desks—but I think it drove the teachers crazy,” Lujan said. 

The cast watched the awards individually, about 50 of them group chatted together.

“They were really happy they were honored for their hard work and saw how much what they did was appreciated,” Lujan said. “It was a little sad to be away from each other during this, but I’m glad they got the recognition.”

Juan Diego Catholic High theatre director Joe Crnich also is glad his student got recognized for his performance.

“I’ve worked with Anthony since his eighth-grade year and he has continued to grow and grow, and he just had a great breakout moment,” he said. “We were working on the reprise of ‘Footloose,’ when Rev. Moore (Anthony’s character) confesses to the congregation and we needed to see that moment when he puts the burden down. It just wasn’t there. But during the performance, Anthony found it and figured out a way to make it work, emotionally, and let us in. It was magical.”

Tibolla, who already was named a finalist, watched the live stream when it was announced he won—and not only was a trophy in the mail to him, but Tibolla was awarded a $1,250 scholarship and invited to compete in the CS Music Competition.

“At first I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “My family was sitting in the living room, and I was in shock when I heard a very loud scream. My grandparents and aunt and uncle called and texted. Then, I got a bunch of texts congratulating me. I was a little sad that we weren’t there as a cast to celebrate because we’re like family. The whole thing was and still is surreal; it’s a very big honor that I’m very grateful because it is what I want to do.”