Jeffrey Cornelius is smack in the center of the poster for documentary special “Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020,” streaming now on HBO Max. At 17, it’s his biggest project to date.
The Class of 2020 Jackson Public Schools grad wears a wry, frank half-smile that seems to say, “Now, what are we gonna do about this mess of a year?”
Sing and dance, apparently.
A Jackson native, Cornelius is a freshman musical theater major at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music in Ohio. He skipped 11th grade—part of the go-go-go energy that’s part of his DNA—and managed to squeeze in some form of a senior year at Murrah before COVID-19 put the kibosh on it.
Cornelius is one of seven musical theater teens in “Homeschool Musical.” The project is the brainchild of Tony Award-winning actress and singer Laura Benanti. Her documentary looks at the challenges young performers faced when COVID-19 dropped the curtain on their plans. For Cornelius, the virus shuttered his musical revue senior project, as well as a summer’s worth of shows out of town.
Benanti, via video on Instagram and Twitter, invited kids to sing songs from a show they missed out on, tag her and use the hashtag #SunshineSongs. “Oh, Laura Benanti, Tony Award winner, is going to repost me if she likes me singing? I’m going to sing,” Cornelius says.
Thousands more responded, too. HBO Max reached out for kids to audition for a scripted show, which became the documentary. The day before he left for college, Cornelius found out he’d be part of the project.
Producers sent 11 crates of equipment that would take up the majority of his apartment’s living room for two months for the self-shot documentary. “It was a lot,” he says of the cell phones, camera, lights, computer and more. A couple of Cincinnati film professionals shot his music video, with producers on Zoom.
“It was really rewarding. I looked back at it last night, and I can’t believe we did all this, during a pandemic, on opposite ends of the country, and it looks like any other documentary that you’d see shot with these professional-grade cameras. I was amazed. It’s beautiful,” Cornelius says.
‘The Smallest Camper’ at New Stage Drama Camp
Cornelius credits New Stage Theatre with fostering his musical theater love.
“He was the smallest camper that ever walked into Broadway Jr.,” New Stage Theatre’s Sharon Miles says, recalling her first impression of him in summer 2013. The theater’s four-week intensive drama camp is geared to rising 6th graders and up, and Cornelius, a year younger than the cutoff, had somehow wound up with the older kids.
Miles pulled his paperwork, discovered his age and was set to contact his folks. “By the end of the day, we were just glad he was in our camp, because it really was evident he was right where he belonged, and he would be the one to watch,” Miles says. “He had the maturity to be in the room, a clear passion for the art, and he had the talent.”
“We did ‘High School Musical Jr.’ and I fell in love,” Cornelius says of that summer before he entered 5th grade. “I got on that stage the first night of the show, and I was like, this is it!” He’d found his path. His uncle, John Cornelius, who writes musicals and has had some of his work featured Off-Broadway, also steered him in that direction.
Cornelius came up through JPS’ APAC pre-professional arts program and focused on orchestra 5th through the 10th grades, playing the cello “and a plethora of other instruments,” he says. He switched to theater his final year.
“A Christmas Carol” was his first main stage show at New Stage; he’s had a role in three productions of the holiday favorite. In addition to the Broadway Jr. productions each summer, he’s also racked up credits in main stage shows “Peter Pan,” “Our Town” and “Hell in High Water.”
New Stage Artistic Director Francine Thomas Reynolds describes Cornelius as “full of energy” and “very professional,” with a big voice for singing. “He always had big dreams to go with a big voice,” she says. He always stepped up to help out, too, whether it was playing cello in addition to his character in “A Christmas Carol” or going from running crew to playing piano in a juke joint scene in “Hell in High Water.”
“He’s a real self-starter,” she says, to the point she’d sometimes forget his youth in the amount of responsibility he’d embrace for a show.
“You have to be a self-starter. There’s no mom backstage for a main stage show.”
Forging a Path
“It’s kind of like catching a bug,” Cornelius says of the stage ambitions that gripped him early.
“Once I caught that theater bug, I couldn’t stop. I’d run around my house in my underwear and a T-shirt, watching the ‘Cats’ movie with a belt sticking out of my underwear, like I was a cat. I always wanted to absorb more,” he says.
Every time Cornelius saw a musical theater book at Lemuria, he wanted it. “I was reading a Stephen Sondheim book at age 12 because I knew it was related to Broadway.”
More opportunities came his way, including going to New York and auditioning, getting callbacks for Broadway shows and a screen test for a Nickelodeon show, Cornelius says. He looks forward to more when the industry opens back up. “I’m just going to keep auditioning and keep putting myself out there, like I’ve been doing before. … I plan to continue to perform and teach when I can, even though I’m still learning,” he says.
“I just want to spread joy, through art. That’s my main thing.”
With his “Homeschool Musical” experience, he adds Benanti to his roster of theater icons. Cornelius’ look-up-to list includes Jeremy Pope, Joshua Henry, Leslie Odom Jr.—”all these really strong Black men in musical theater. They really inspire me because there’s not that many, and to see them out there succeeding in such a way is so beautiful to me,” he says.
Last January, in New York City to audition for college, Cornelius saw Broadway shows “A Soldier’s Play” starring Blair Underwood and the Temptations musical “Ain’t Too Proud.” He treasured the chance to talk to the cast of each, and get tips and advice about the profession.
“The Black Broadway community’s role for so long has been kind of pigeon-holed into these little caveats because that’s how musicals have been written so far,” he says. “And, I think the first thing we’re going to see when Broadway comes back is a widening of stories that are told, not just by Black performers, but by performers of all races and gender identities.
“I’m looking forward to seeing more shows on Broadway that don’t focus on the struggle of being Black, but celebrate Blackness.”
In the wake of social-justice movements, Cornelius foresees a new vibrancy when Broadway comes back. “I also think we’re going to be seeing a lot of people of color in roles that aren’t traditionally played by people of color,” he says. “That’s something I actually applaud New Stage for doing a lot. They never made me feel, when I was there, that I was the token or the other,” including his role as a young Scrooge in a production, where white actors played older versions of the character.
“It just goes along and shows people that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you look like, as long as you can come together to tell a beautiful story.”