Musical theater helped Utah’s young budding Broadway star escape a ‘terrible situation’

(Alex Gallivan | Special to the Tribune) Ethan Kelso gives a performance at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts after winning a nationally recognized award for best performance by an actor in New York.

When Ethan Kelso was 8 years old, his adoptive mother asked him where he had learned to sing. He told her, “‘In the darkness.’”

Kelso was 3 when his father was killed in a car accident, leaving him in the care of his mother, who struggled with addiction, his family said. Kelso and his older sister, Bailey, were eventually placed in foster care until they were adopted by their grandparents, Mary Claire and Gary Kelso.

“They sang alone in an apartment with no electricity,” said Mary Claire Kelso. “All they had was their voices. They came from such sadness.”

The contrast between those dark days and the bright lights of Broadway couldn’t be more stark. But on June 24, the Utah teenager stood on stage at the Minskoff Theatre — home of “The Lion King” — and was stunned to hear his name announced at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards as best actor.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the competition, known as the Jimmy Awards. Last year’s best actor, Andrew Barth Feldman, is currently starring on Broadway in “Dear Evan Hansen” — as Evan Hansen. The best actress winner, Reneé Rapp, is also on Broadway, starring as Regina George in “Mean Girls.”

Which is one of the reasons Kelso said he never expected to win. Even when the presenters said the winner was from Utah, “I was waiting for them to say somebody else’s name,” he said. “And then I was like — wait, I’m the only one from Utah.”

More than 100,000 students enter local and state competitions across the country, with 86 finalists making it to New York. Kelso “couldn’t believe” he had won.

Others were less surprised.

“I told him when he made it to Broadway, I’d come to see him,” said Ron Litteral, principal of the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts in Salt Lake City. “Yes, I believed he could do it. But I believe every single kid here can do it.”

Kelso’s win is a success not just for him and his family, but for all students at SLSPA, which he attended for the past three years, Litteral said.

“The way we look at it, the school won, because Ethan had 300 other talented kids who pushed him to be the best Ethan he could be,” the principal said.

‘I can’t do it’

Kelso’s rendition of “Wondering” from the musical “Bridges of Madison County” at the Jimmy Awards is jaw-droppingly good. At 6 feet, 2 inches, he’s tall, has what can only be described as a big, Broadway voice, and he can act.

“The kid has got talent coming out of his eyeballs,” said Katelin Ruzzamenti Knight, Kelso’s musical theater instructor at the performing arts high school. “He’s just a joy to have in class. He works so well with others and he’s such a leader.”

But Kelso remembers that his first reaction to getting on stage, at age 8, was fear.

“When I was adopted, my parents asked me if I wanted to do musical theater and I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’ Until I got there,” he said. “During rehearsals I got so scared and so nervous that I quit my first show.”

“He came out and he said, ‘Mom, I can’t do it,’” Mary Claire Kelso said. “He said, ‘If I mess up the words or do something wrong, I mess up the whole play for everybody and I can’t take that pressure.’ And he quit before it even started.”

But his sister stayed in the production of “Annie,” organized by the Jaks Theatre Company, a nonprofit youth group that performs Broadway musicals in Salt Lake City venues. “And when I saw the show I was like, ‘I have to do it. This is so cool. I feel left out,’” Kelso said.

Jaks director Jill Wilhelm wanted to cast Kelso as the lead in “Oliver,” but his mom suggested putting him in the ensemble to keep him from quitting again. They compromised by making him the understudy for Oliver — and he ended up on stage in half the performances at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

“I did a show and then I did another show. And I loved it,” Kelso said. “I conquered that first step. That first obstacle. And I never turned back. And it has been my passion and my life ever since.”

He’s continued to star in Jaks productions, most recently in “Les Miserables” May 31-June 8.

“That is what really pushed me into this life — conquering my struggles and conquering my hardships with music,” Kelso said.

That and his parents, who he’s quick to credit. “The biggest lesson both my parents ever taught me is I can never give up and I can’t say can’t,” Kelso said. “I’m not allowed to say I can’t do something. I have to say, ‘This is hard. Will you help me?’”

At an open house on Wednesday at his high school, he thanked many people, but singled out his mother. “You’ve pushed me to do so much. You’ve kind of taken me by the hand and said go,” he said.

(Alex Gallivan | Special to the Tribune) Family and friends await arrival of Ethan Kelso at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts after winning a nationally recognized award for best performance by an actor in New York.

“Or else,” Gary Kelso interjected with a laugh. “She was the Rock of Gibraltar behind all this. She made this happen.”

(Listeners of X-96′s “Radio From Hell” are, no doubt, familiar with Mary Claire Kelso — her daughter, host Gina Barberi, talks about her frequently.)

There is a limit to their support, the Kelsos joke. The Utah Festival Opera, which sponsors the Utah stage of the competition, is based in Logan — and the Jimmys’ homepage lists Logan as Kelso’s hometown. That’s been included in multiple media reports, but the family lives in Salt Lake City.

“We’re committed to supporting him however we can, but why would anyone think we were going to commute 80 miles each way?” Gary Kelso said with a laugh.

“And then sometimes they say the performing arts school is in Logan, which really ticks them off here. This is a big deal for them,” Mary Claire said.

School officials, in jest, welcomed folks to “Logan” at Wednesday’s open house.

‘It was the music that helped’

It’s hard to imagine a more confident 18-year-old. The only time Kelso hesitates at all is when he talks about his childhood. “When I was young, my sister and I — we were in a terrible situation,” he said. “No kid should have to go through that.”

Music “kind of whisked us off to another world and we didn’t have to think about what was going on,” he said. “Or we didn’t have to worry about where the next meal would come from.”

Kelso hates the word “victim” and “doesn’t want to be the hard luck story,” Mary Claire Kelso said. He didn’t want to talk about that part of his life until someone suggested his story might help other struggling kids.

“So he granted a couple interviews with this part of the story, but he really wanted it to be about striving, having goals, having dreams,” Mary Claire Kelso said.

Counseling helped the siblings, Gary Kelso said. “But, really, it was the music that helped them the most.”

(Alex Gallivan | Special to the Tribune) Katelin Ruzzamenti Knight, musical theater teacher, speaks with Ethan Kelso at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts on Wednesday. Kelso, who won a national theater award in New York in June, “has got talent coming out of his eyeballs,” Knight said.

Bailey, who finished in the top 10 in the Jimmys competition herself when she was a high school senior, has gone on to earn a master’s degree in special education and works with children.

Between the moment he won the Jimmy Award and his arrival at the after party, Kelso was excited to see his Instagram account go from about 50 followers to about 5,000.

“But I don’t care about having a lot of followers. I care about changing people’s lives with a story,” he said. “I mean, that’s what musical theater is — telling a story and hoping that somebody feels something.”

Kelso was accepted into musical theater programs from Connecticut (Hartford University) to Washington (Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle), not to mention Utah State and Southern Utah universities. And all with scholarships.

The only program he didn’t get into was the one at home — the University of Utah.

“I went to the audition, and then a few weeks later they said, ‘Sorry, we have to say no.’ They accepted me into the college, but not the musical theater program,” he said.

The Jimmy comes with a $25,000 scholarship — but now Kelso isn’t certain whether he’ll immediately go to college. He’s interviewing talent agencies, and expects to sign soon. He’s started talking with people in the entertainment industry and feeling out offers.

“I can’t really say a lot,” he said — but he has talked to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.” And Miranda is producing an upcoming movie reboot for Disney.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that the new, live-action ‘Little Mermaid’ was interested in me auditioning,” Kelso said with a smile. “So that may be a thing. It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest, with so many things coming at me. You never know.”