Performing on a Broadway stage meant the chance of a lifetime for a theater enthusiast like Malia Morley.
Morley, who graduated from Hillcrest High School this year, won best performance in an ensemble at the National High School Musical Theater Awards in New York City in late June. Also known as the Jimmy Awards, the annual event is in its fourth year.
"It was incredible," Morley said. "It's something you never think a teenager would ever get to experience."
Sixty nominated students gathered from all over the country for the awards program that recognizes excellence in high-school musical theater. The teens got the flavor of a bustling city as they stayed in the dormitory of New York University.
Morley called it a dream just to be able to reside in the NYU dorm and train at the Tisch School of the Arts.
"NYU is the goal for me and a lot of musical-theater buffs," Morley said.
They rehearsed under the guidance of Broadway professionals and were directed by Van Kaplan, executive director of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, a nonprofit theater company. Morley said she enjoyed working with Kaplan and choreographer Keisha Lalama.
"I loved it," she said. "I loved the professionalism of it."
The pros weren't afraid to push the students to their limits, according to Morley. Rehearsals lasted throughout the day from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
"They told us right from the beginning, 'We're going to take you to a place you didn't think you could reach,' " Morley said. "At 11 p.m. you're handed a piece of music and expected to have it memorized by 8 the next morning."
The rigorous task didn't daunt her spirit. Rather, Morley thought of it as an "eye-opening" experience showing how hard you have to work to make it in the industry.
"I've never sung so much in my life," she said. "When it's lunchtime you don't talk, you just eat and rest, otherwise you'll be dead at the end of the day."
The students' hard work culminated in a performance on the stage of the Minskoff Theatre, home to the Broadway show "The Lion King."
Morley described the opening and closing numbers as a medley of songs from current Broadway shows.
"I had a little solo where I got to be at the front of the show, where I looked out and saw my theater director from Hillcrest [Josh Long]," Morley said. "It was great to see him."
The most rewarding thing she discovered was the opportunity to mingle among peers who share her passion for theater, some of whom she predicts will be starring in Broadway shows someday.
"I loved getting to know kids from all over the country," she said. "These kids were unbelievable."
Paul Winkelman, a counselor at Hillcrest High, worked on choreography with Morley in two school musicals and when she was on the dance company.
"She is what they call a triple threat: She can sing, she can dance, she can act," Winkelman said. "She is an exceptionally talented young woman."
Aside from musical skills, Winkelman noted how personable Morley is.
"She is one of the most real people I've ever met," he said. "She never sets herself above anybody else, and she sets an example for other students."
Winkelman and Hillcrest High principal Susan Malone agreed that Morley will succeed in anything if she puts her mind to it.
"Anything that she endeavors to do, if she chooses to be in theater, she'll do that," Malone said. "If she chooses to be a doctor, she'll be that."
Malone described Morley as a bubbly person who reaches out to everyone.
"Everybody felt so good because of the atmosphere she creates," Malone said. "She's very appreciative toward everything."
Morley had the lead roles in two of her high-school musicals, "Cinderella" and "Aida." She was nominated both times for the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre's High School Theater Awards for best actress.
She didn't win her junior year, but she garnered the distinction of best actress in "Aida" this year, and that qualified her to compete for the Jimmy Awards.
At the state theater awards ceremony, she said she knew what it was like to stand up there, hold her breath, cross her fingers and hope for the best as she had done the previous year, but she had no expectation.
"They told us to plan an acceptance speech, but I didn't plan one," Morley said. "My friend shoved me toward the stage and I just winged the speech."
Morley is flipping the page to a new act now. She's starting as a freshman at the University of Utah, where she is studying a relatively new program called musical theater. With the success she already has, she knows it will still be a mountain to climb to get to her dream.
"I'm not sure how soon I'll jump on a plane and go back to Broadway and try out," she said. "But I know I'll keep on performing because I have so much passion for it, and I can't stop doing it."
Lights, camera, action!
PBS created a three-part documentary about the 2012 National High School Musical Theater Awards called "Broadway or Bust."
The show starts airing on Sept. 9 at 8 p.m.
The documentary follows the experiences of 60 students nationwide as they rehearse, perform and vie for the Jimmy Awards in New York City.