First published in the March 12 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Two John Burroughs High School students are among the 100 Southern California students who achieved semifinalist status in The Music Center’s Spotlight competition, the nonprofit announced recently.
Burroughs senior Rhett Hemingway reached the semifinalist stage in the non-classical voice and acting categories, while junior Sophie Pollono is competing in the non-classical voice section. The Music Center selected the two students out of more than 1,300 teenagers who auditioned for the Spotlight program, which offers cash and master classes to semifinalists.
Contestants will perform before a panel of Spotlight judges, who will select two students in each category as grand prize finalists. Those 14 finalists will then perform at The Music Center’s Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles on June 15, with each receiving a $5,000 scholarship.
The final audition is scheduled for April, Pollono said; it’ll be the program’s first in-person offering since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I never have thought of it as a competition,” she added. “It’s just a really good opportunity.”
This year is Pollono’s third as a semifinalist. A recent transfer to Burroughs, she’s a member of the school’s award-winning Powerhouse choir program and a Disney Channel actress. She and Hemingway, who has been a Powerhouse member since his freshman year and is student president of the school’s Vocal Music Association, met when he came to watch her freshman performance at a Spotlight master class. They’ve since started dating.
Hemingway said he’s auditioned for the Spotlight program since his freshman year, but this is the first time he’s been a semifinalist. Reaching this point, he added, feels like his effort in the competition is finally paying off.
Brendan Jennings, Burrough’s vocal music director, said the school has historically performed well in vocal competitions, with a number of its students becoming Spotlight semifinalists or even earning the final spots in the program.
“It’s great to see that our kids are getting recognized,” Jennings said. “It’s kind of a validation of our program and the training that we’re offering these kids.”
He praised Hemingway’s leadership and growth displayed during the senior’s high school tenure, which included COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions.
“He’s an excellent tenor and performer, and just a really dedicated member of the team,” Jennings said, “and wants what’s best for the group and has worked really hard to keep the group moving forward … with all the obstacles we’ve had.”
Pollono, he added, brought a wealth of theater experience with her when she came to Burroughs. Both she and Hemingway will play lead roles in the school’s show choir competition sets, according to Jennings.
“She kind of immediately made an impact,” he explained. “She’s an extremely talented junior.”
Both students said they aim to pursue musical theater in college, with hopes of eventually appearing on Broadway. Though Pollono said she enjoys working in film and television, she loves the vocal element of theater, noting that she will be playing Cinderella in Burrough’s spring production of “Into the Woods.”
“There’s just something about the energy of live theater,” she added. “It’s just a different energy [from film].”
Hemingway, who said he’s been involved in theater since the third grade, was recently accepted into the University of Michigan, which is often ranked among the best musical theater schools in the country.
Hemingway credited his teachers, including Jennings, and his experience with Powerhouse for propelling him toward his dream school.
“It’s played such a massive role in my life and without those leaders … I would not be here where I am today,” he said. “I’m just so thankful for them and everything they’ve done for me.”