Bright lights, big dreams for local high school students

Matthew Wautier-Rodriguez and Kyra Hietpas had never met before being nominated for the Center Stage High School Musical Theater Awards at the Fox Cities P.A.C. The pair have now shared the unique opportunity of representing the program at The National High School Musical Theater Awards®, known as the Jimmy Awards®, and have both been profoundly impacted by the experience.

“I cried like a baby for days when I found out I was going to Center Stage (as a nominee), so when I found out I was going to the Jimmys, I nearly died,” Hietpas said.

For Matthew, it was a moment three years in the making. In the first year of the Center Stage program, as a sophomore, he participated in the Showcase as an ensemble member. As a junior, he sang at a workshop with a cast member from Les Misérables. As a senior, he was nominated for Best Actor.

“My reaction to when I found out I was going to the Jimmy Awards was pure joy and happiness. I remember putting my head in my hands and just starting to tear up. It was a goal of mine I have had since my sophomore year and to finally come true meant so much,” Wautier-Rodriguez said.

The two spent nine days in New York City, working with 84 other students from regional programs throughout the United States, competing for scholarships and training with Broadway professionals.

“The best advice I was given was from my vocal coach Randy: ‘You have nothing to prove, only to share.’ That statement changed my entire outlook on music and theater completely. Instead of using all of your energy to show everyone how great you are, it’s much more fun to share your love of music and your talent with them. It’s not about winning, it’s about loving every step of the way,” Hietpas said.

For fun, the group recorded a version of “You Will Be Found” with Andrew Barth Feldman, the 2018 Jimmy Winner and current Evan in Dear Evan Hansen, and Alex Lacamoire, who won Tony Awards® for his orchestrations of Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and In The Heights. They also saw Dear Evan Hansen, ate dinner at the famous Sardi’s restaurant and were surprised by seeing their faces on a billboard in Times Square. The experience was punctuated by their performance on a Broadway stage at the Minskoff Theater (current home to Disney’s The Lion King) where they put on a show for a sold-out audience and lived their Broadway dreams. All 86 participants sang in the opening and closing numbers while Wautier-Rodriguez was featured in one of the infamous Jimmy medleys and Hietpas took part in a specially designed number themed around show business.

“When I was performing my solo in my medley piece, I remember running stage right during my song and looking out into the audience. I started to tear up because it felt like I was home” Wautier-Rodriguez said. “It felt like this is what I need to do for the rest of my life.”

For Wautier-Rodriguez, this feeling also helped him confirm his choice to study musical theater at UW-Stevens Point this fall, igniting his excitement for his future in the industry.
“I think the biggest way I’ve grown from this process is that I feel like it’s not so much a dream anymore,” said Wautier-Rodriguez. “I don’t look at my future and think, ‘I hope I can make it.’ I look at my future now and think, ‘I’m on the correct path, I just have to work hard and never give up.’”
A similar confirmation happened for Hietpas, who plans to study music education at Carroll University this fall. Her experience made her more confident in her choice of future career, and bolstered her desire to share this experience with future generations.
 “I’ve carried a lot of self-doubt for a long time,” Hietpas said. “But after hearing all these high schoolers sing and learn different singing techniques, I know that I’m meant to teach high school choral programs. I want to bring another kid to Center Stage and maybe even to the Jimmys.”
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