Burnsville High School Senior Jon Butler is earning state and national recognition for his achievements in the performing arts, including his selection as a finalist for the Hennepin Theater Trust’s Triple Threat Awards, which recognize outstanding student performances in singing, dancing and acting.
But his talents go well beyond those three areas. He also plays several instruments, composes and arranges music, dabbles in cinematography and is the vocal/musical director for Burnsville Summer Theater.
And he’s just an all-around kind person, said BHS Theater Director Amy Stead.
“To have a kid with such an incredible gift be so humble and kind and a person of such character and integrity is amazing,” she said. “He’s very much a leader in our theater and music departments and everyone really looks up to him. He’s just the whole package.”
One of 26 students chosen from around the state as a finalist for the Triple Threat Awards, Butler will perform with the other finalists at the State Theater in Minneapolis on June 10 and 11. Four of the finalists will be selected to fly to New York to participate in workshops, meet with industry professionals and see Broadway shows.
Butler is also a finalist for the Jimmy Awards, the nickname for the National High School Musical Theater Awards, and a semi-finalist in the High School Musical Theater category of the National Association of Teachers of Music (NATS) National Student Auditions, which will hold competitions at St. Olaf College in June.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “It feels kind of unreal.”
Butler said he’s always loved music, which he attributes to growing up in a household surrounded by it.
“My parents are both organists at churches and teach music,” he said. “My family did shows and roped me into doing them when I was young.”
Active in the church choir since he was a child, Butler started playing the upright bass in elementary school band and went on to play with the Minnesota Youth Symphonies. In sixth-grade band he was introduced to the electric bass, which soon became a favorite and led him to the Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands and eventually jazz gigs around the metro area. But he credits his time at Metcalf Middle School with really influencing his passion for music and theater, including band teacher Mark Mraz’s enthusiasm for the piano, which got Butler hooked on it, too.
“Metcalf also has a very well-established drama program and I was involved in that for three years. It was really fun and let me know this is definitely something I want to pursue,” he said. “So I really got into musicals at that time.”
Since he’s been at BHS, Butler has been a member of the choir and involved in every musical performed at the school, starting with Les Miserables in 10th grade and ending with Seussical this spring. He started composing his own music in 10th grade, mostly choral music and some jazz. One of his pieces recently premiered at a church in Mankato, and last December the BHS concert choir performed a piece he originally wrote for his church choir. He said he’s been grateful to work with choir teacher Martha Schmidt, who is a published composer.
“She has always been very gracious about taking a look at my compositions and giving feedback,” he said. “It’s really helped to have a musically trained voice there to give an ear to my compositions or my nerdy musical jokes.”
He recently applied his musical talent to an assignment in his media literacy class, creating an album of originally composed music and lyrics interwoven with a set of narratives about racism and classism in today’s society, for which he consulted with friends who have direct experience.
“The original intent was to lift up the voices of people who maybe have had their voices silenced or who don’t have the privilege or the resources to express themselves,” he said. “I think that musical aspect is really important, because music is the way we as humans express ourselves and can make our experience known to the rest of the world.”
Butler plans to study musical theater next fall at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where he hopes to expose himself to as many activities and ideas as he can.
“I think it’s really important to be a well-rounded person, to expose yourself to a bunch of ideas and beliefs that you may not agree with, because ultimately it will help you work well with as many people as possible,” he said.
Stead said she is confident that whatever he ends up doing, his talent will take him far.
“He’s going to hit the mark. And he could do it in a number of different ways because his talents are so versatile,” she said. “He’s really going to do everyone in our district and everyone who knows him and himself proud.”