Top musical theater students from around Southern California filled the audience of Hollywood's Pantages Theatre Sunday. They weren't there to see Wicked -- these students were invited to their very own awards ceremony, one that offered more than just a trophy.
The Jerry Herman high school musical theater awards selected winners in everything from best costume design to best musical for school productions held around Southern California this school year.
Six finalists for the best male and female lead roles performed on stage for a chance to win the top prize: an all-expenses-paid trip to New York for the national competition. Most students spent months practicing their parts.
"Throwing up is a definite possibility," finalist and high school junior Gabriella Certo said backstage as she waited to hear who had won. "Broadway's been my dream since I was a little kid."
Winners in New York will receive scholarship money - last year they got $10,000 each.
And the winners for top lead were: Natalia Vivino and Anthony Nappier.
"I am feeling over the moon," said Vivino, 16, a junior at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley. "I feel like this is some sort of dream, I was not expecting this at all."
Nappier, 18, a senior at Arcadia High School, gave up the football team to dedicate more time to theater. He said he doesn't regret it one bit. His performance as Aldolpho from the musical comedy "The Drowsy Chaperone" brought many in the audience this weekend to their feet.
"It felt like I was winning a Tony," Nappier said. "I got up there and I am hoping to hear my name and then you hear you’re name and then you’re like did that just happen?"
Hollywood High School also won for Best Musical for its production of "In the Heights."
The night felt very Hollywood.
Vivino and Nappier breathlessly thanked everyone from family members to the Pantages sound engineers in their on stage acceptance speeches.
Celebrities like director Kenny Ortega, who was a guest judge, amped up the night's star power.
Ortega, a longtime collaborator with Michael Jackson, worked on what was to be Jackson's final "This Is It" tour. When a group of high schoolers surrounded him in the Pantages auditorium, they seemed to focus on another part of his career: Disney's "High School Musical" series.
Students shouted, "I love you Kenny!" and yelled "success" when he agreed to meet them after the show for a photo.
This year's ceremony is a big upgrade from last year when there were no performances or trophies, just informal auditions.
"We wanted them all to know that this is a possibility," to one day perform on a stage like the Pantages, said Paul Gleason, director of Education and Outreach for Nederlander, which owns the theater. Gleason hopes the event inspires kids to dream big and pursue careers in the arts.
One of last year's winners, Cortines high school senior Mason Alexander, was also selected as a finalist this year. He has some advice for this year's winners.
"You have to be a sponge, New York is intense," he said. "They throw a lot at you, you are there for a week and at the end of the week you put on a big show at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this web story incorrectly identified Anthony Nappier's school. He attends Arcadia High School. KPCC regrets the error.