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Henry Mcgee, Henry Mcgee
The National High School Musical Theater Award competition included 60 students from 1,000 high schools across the country from among a talent pool of 50,000 students.
It was the coolest experience of my life. It was a lot of work, but it's the kind of work that I love to do. —Peter Lambert

For musical theater students, traveling to New York City is comparable to a pilgrimage to Mecca. Two Utah high school graduates not only enjoyed the bright lights of Broadway, but were invited to hone their craft at intensive workshops with nationally recognized stage performers.

Peter Lambert, from Alta High School, and Malia Morley, from Hillcrest High, also competed for the Jimmy Award, named after famed Broadway theater owner and producer James M. Nederlander — or Tony Jr., as the high school equivalent of a Tony Award has been called.

And their week-long "theatrical boot camp" has been documented in a nationally broadcast PBS prime-time series, "Broadway or Bust," with the final segment airing on KUED Sunday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m.

"It was a dream come true to be able to go to New York and represent Hillcrest High and Utah," Morley said. "Just unbelievable."

"It was the coolest experience of my life," Lambert said. "It was a lot of work, but it's the kind of work that I love to do."

To describe "Broadway or Bust," the program's executive producer, Lance Shultz, said, "This series will pull back the curtain to show viewers the whole process — the talent, ambition, drive, vulnerability, discipline, resiliency, dreams dashed and dreams fulfilled — of what it takes to make it to Broadway."

In March, Morley and Lambert won Best Leading Actress and Best Leading Actor at the 2012 Utah High School Musical Theater Awards, sponsored by Logan's Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre. Morley was honored for her lead role in "Aida" and Lambert for his performance of Bobby Child in "Crazy for You" while they were seniors at their high schools, and Hillcrest High's production of "Aida" won the statewide competition for Best Musical of the Year.

The two students then participated in the National High School Musical Theater event in June, where they received master classes and one-on-one coaching from professional Broadway actors and instructors from the prestigious Musical Theater Department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

The event capped a months-long winnowing process that began with 50,000 students from 1,000 schools.

"The whole week consisted of just constant rehearsing and performing," Morley explained. "We woke up at 8 in the morning and finished rehearsing late in the evening. Then they would hand you a sheet of music and say, 'OK, have it ready to sing tomorrow at 8.' It was just work, work, work — very challenging but so much fun."

Lambert agreed that the professional-level performance expectations of the workshops required a high level of commitment.

"They expected a lot of us and they treated us like we were performing on Broadway," he said. "They wanted us to learn what it was like to actually work in this business."

Along with the challenge of raising their commitment to a professional level was negotiating the many activities involved with "Broadway or Bust," the first-time taping of the competition.

"The cameramen are trying to get the perfect shot and we're trying to better ourselves as actors," Lambert said. "A majority of the time the cameras were pretty annoying, especially when they were invading our rehearsal space."

"They had cameras on us from the second we stepped out of the taxi until we left on the final day," Morley said. "PBS got more footage than we wanted them to get."

"The TV show will give viewers a nice idea of what we did there," Lambert said. "but the experience and the family we created within the week, all of that, won't be completely understood."

Morley added, "The experience was so perfect that I just want to leave it how it was."

The week ended with each of the 60 students in essence making their Broadway debuts. At New York City's Minskoff Theatre, on an evening when "The Lion King" was not being staged, the young performers presented portions of songs from their high school musicals that were combined into unique medleys. The final performance included all of the students in a single musical production that they had rehearsed during the week.

Then a Jimmy was awarded, ranging from Best Performance to Most Improved — and (spoiler alert!) Morley was honored as the Best Ensemble Performer as part of the telecast.

The students will continue their musical theater training, with Lambert enrolled at Brigham Young University, though he is reviewing transferring at some point to a musical theater conservatory program, and Morley studying in the Musical Theater Program at the University of Utah.

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"Because I plan to go into musical theater professionally, it was very eye-opening and essential that I learn what it's like and just how perfect you need to get every little thing," Morley said. "And how much you need to work and work. It taught me that I can go beyond what I thought were my limits, until a performance is Broadway-worthy."

For Lambert, participating in the event "solidified my idea of what I want to do. I enjoyed myself so much that week, that it was like, why would I want to do anything else?"