National High School Musical Theatre Award Winner: Ethan Kelso

CS Music loves to feature impressive artists/singers and Ethan Kelso is definitely one. Read about his amazing journey from his challenging childhood to his first big success of winning the National High School Musical Theatre Awards. We have no doubt this is only the beginning of his story.

Ethan Kelso says that he’s learned that life is very complex and with his experiences, it’s been a crazy journey, even at a younger age. He feels like “no matter where you come from, no matter your race, your sexuality, or your religious preferences—no matter what it is—nothing should hold you back from pursuing your dreams and becoming successful.”

He would know since he grew up in challenging circumstances, but after hard work and determination, he was able to enter his freshman year of college with an incredible scholarship to The Hartt School at the University of Hartford and having won the 2019 National High School Musical Theatre Award (also known as the Jimmy Awards®) for Best Performance by an Actor.

Ethan said, “I was raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a living situation that was not suited for a young child. My father passed away when I was 3 and my mother became addicted to drugs and alcohol, leaving my sister, me, and my other siblings alone to fend for ourselves. My sister Bailey and I got into singing because it made us feel happy in a world that was cruel, difficult, and depressing. We sang to relieve our sorrow and to escape to a better place where we weren’t hungry, abused, and neglected. Finally, one day, our pleas were heard, and our grandparents took us away and they adopted us. They introduced my sister and I to the fabulous and fantastic world of musical theatre after they heard us sing.”

He said his first audition was at the age of 8 for the musical Annie. He ended up being too nervous to do it, and he ended up quitting. But his sister was in the show and when he sat in the audience and watched her, he realized he actually did want to try to be onstage. He auditioned for the next show and after some adjustment time, it turned into a love in which he hasn’t turned away from since.

Over the next 10 years, he performed in 15 additional shows, including one of his favorite roles of Marius in Les Misérable. Marius was a favorite because he loved the complexity the character arc and he related to Marius’s struggle between having to choose between two good things.

Toward the end of his senior year of high school, Ethan won the award of Best Actor at the Utah High School Musical Theatre Awards (UHSMTA) and as a result was able to attend the Jimmy Awards® in New York City. Ethan felt like it was the greatest experience in his life to this point.

He said, “It was an experience you can’t quite put your finger one. You expect a feeling of tension and competition, but honestly, I never felt that even once. It was 86 artists coming together to create art and celebrate the love of music, theatre, and acting. It was a beautiful and amazing thing.

“That doesn’t mean it was necessarily easy, though. It was 10-14 hour rehearsal days. It was hard work and it was tough, but everyone learned a lot and found a deeper love for what they were doing because of the work ethic needed.

“The awards night was a special night. Getting to perform on a Broadway stage in front of the great Stephen Schwartz and legendary casting directors Tara Rubin and Bernie Telsey was so amazing. It was, in all technicality, our Broadway debut. I’ve never been through something so amazing. It made it such an extraordinarily special night.”

When they started performing at the awards concert, his gut twisted because he was very excited, but he didn’t go in thinking he might win. He thought he’d gain something from the experience, of course, but the thought of actually winning didn’t occur to him.

He said, “There were so many, many talented peers there and I was content to just attend. But once I was called as a finalist, I thought maybe I had a shot. So, I tried to kick it up a gear and really go for it. I was very fortunate and blessed to win.”

He continued, “The greatest take-away for me was that this artform doesn’t have to be all about the competition. Yes, we have to audition, but we can still get to be friends with those we meet at an audition. And we’re all there for the love of theatre. I also learned that it’s important to stay grounded and humble, but it’s important to follow your dreams and not let go of them. A lot of people think they can’t get to their dream. I was one of those people. I came from nothing, but I’ve followed my dreams anyway. Something that I learned from participating in the Jimmys is that despite there being 80 ‘nos’ to one ‘yes’, I’ll always continue getting up and going to the next audition. That was instilled in us there—that we couldn’t quit. We couldn’t give up.”

On a final note, he had some great advice to give to current high school students. He said, “Congratulations on trying and congratulations on being involved in a field that is bigger than yourselves. It’s not always easy and can be a thankless job, because sometimes you have to just be okay with being in the background. But nothing is holding you back from being successful. It’s a matter of how hard you work and what you’re willing to do to succeed. If you are willing to push just a little harder each time you’re in school or work a little bit longer at home on what you want, then success will come. For me, it was—I’m going to go home and work for an hour each day and make a goal to be five notes higher or lower than I was at.

“You don’t have to be stuck in the place you come from. You’re allowed to succeed and move up. It’s a scary thing, but you can have hope and have fun and gain confidence. Gaining confidence is something that a lot of people struggle with, including me. It can be something that’s scary, but I’ve got your back and can tell you that you just don’t know unless you try. Put in the work and try.”

Mary Taylor

Mary Denton Taylor is CS Music’s Online Magazine Editor. She loves helping thousands of singers find their potential at the CS Music conventions and vocal competitions. She is a former librarian who writes young adult and middle grade fiction when she isn’t working or being a wife and mom to her four music-loving kids.