American songster: Grayson Samuels may only be 18, but as a singer he’s surprisingly sophisticated, with the suave delivery and musical tastes of a veteran crooner. His knack for pop standards helped him reach the semi-finals of Michael Feinstein’s 2014 Great American Songbook High School Vocal Competition. He didn’t win the top prize, but he did snag the $1,000 Songbook Celebration award.
Use your words: Feingold strongly emphasized the importance of lyrics. “So much of the competition was acting the song,” says Samuels. “The lyric is the story.”
Star power: When he won the 2015 Walker’s Rising Star $5,000 scholarship in vocal music, he made the offbeat choice of singing a song about a gay caveman called “Way Ahead of My Time.” When a woman came up to him after the show and said, “Thank you so much for singing about this,” he realized anew how deeply a song could affect an audience.
Big roles: As an actor, his favorite character to date was Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “It was just such a beast of a role.” The most challenging role he’s ever done vocally was Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. “It’s hard for any seasoned vocalist, but for an 18-year-old still growing and changing it was very difficult.” Grayson tried not to talk during the day in order to get ready for the nightly performances at Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs H.S., from which he graduated this spring.
True to his school: “PCCA puts the ‘fine’ in ‘fine arts.’”
He started early: His very first role was in fourth grade as Oscar the Lizard in The Christmas Lizard. “I sang ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ — probably my best performance to date.”
Movie love: He’s been watching TCM since he was 6. The Wizard of Oz — "my favorite, favorite movie" — introduced him to Judy Garland. Much later, via Julie and Julia [the Meryl Streep movie about Julia Child] he discovered the great American singer Margaret Whiting, whose version of “Time After Time” is on the soundtrack. At the Feinstein competition he got to meet Whiting’s daughter. “It went full circle.”
Texas bound: Samuels got accepted at several universities, including NYU, Carnegie Mellon and a school in Liverpool, England, but he decided on the Musical Theatre MFA program at Texas State. “Of course I thought, oh God, Texas,” but he's impressed with the program, and it’s in Austin, which isn’t really Texas.