Elan (“EJ”) Kramer, the Laguna Beach High School senior who just landed the best actor award at the 42nd annual MACY Awards last week, displays extraordinary talent on stage. But the secret to his success, it seems, lies in a well-rounded character, limitless passion and strong work ethic.
Musicality runs in the family, so EJ’s talent in that realm comes as no surprise. His father, Jay, played the clarinet through college in the marching band and currently plays clarinet and sax with the Laguna Concert Band. And his mother, Leonie, first played the violin and then the viola, which she plays in local orchestras and chamber groups. She also coaches viola at the high school level.
Meanwhile, EJ’s older brother Isaac, a senior this fall majoring in trombone performance at Boston’s New England Conservatory, set his sights on the conductor’s baton and a graduate school conducting program.
EJ credits his parents with his early introduction to the performing arts. “Some of my earliest memories are of going with my entire family to see the local symphony orchestra perform,” he said. He and his brother both began with piano lessons at an early age, and where his brother took up the trombone, he took up the flute. Then he took voice lessons.
EJ broke the mold when he began to split his time between music and the stage. “EJ is our only family member who has the guts to do this,” said his mother.
The pivotal moment came when Leonie Kramer played in a concert version of “The Music Man” with the South Coast Symphony, and the conductor needed members for the boys’ band. She brought 11-year-old EJ with her to rehearsal and “he hopped right on the stage and that was it,” she said. “We actually had a hard time getting him to come down again.”
“I had no idea that what I had signed up for would change my entire life,” he recalled. “I loved every moment of the brief five minutes I was on stage.” He later overheard his mother tell a friend he was “bitten by the bug.”
Since then, EJ simultaneously has honed his music and theater skills. Jeremy Chung, band instructor at the high school and Thurston Middle School, praised EJ as “probably one of the best high school musicians I’ve ever taught in my 17 years of teaching.” Mark Dressler, the drama teacher, also at both schools, said that, “any director who works with EJ appreciates his insistence on finding an honest intention in his character. If it does not feel right to EJ, he will express an interest to try more avenues to the truth until he is satisfied that what he does is believable.”
Fortunately, EJ’s performing talents seem to be trumped by his skill at time management. With the precision of a conductor, he orchestrates his different activities so as to create harmony instead of chaos. In a letter of recommendation, Dressler described EJ’s adroit juggling. “All of EJ’s performing arts teachers and directors appreciate his amazing organizational abilities.”
For EJ, there was never a choice between music and theater. “What I really love is when they come together to create a work of art,” he said, adding, “When a song is beautifully acted, that trumps everything.”
In his sophomore year, EJ won the lead in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He had such fun and learned so much that it occurred to him, “Whoa. This is really what I want to do.”
Even so, he never expected to win the MACY Award for best actor. And when he did, he said, “What made the whole thing even better was the fact that a lot of my friends were at the awards with me. None of this would have been possible without their hard work. We all work together to create these productions, and everyone is so important.”
These are not empty words. EJ was as enthusiastic about winning a small part as when he won the lead, according to Dressler. “EJ is the kind of kid who loves participating in the process of putting a show together. He loves being part of the collaborative process of making the magic happen.”
High school chorus teacher Roxanna Ward sees the same quality. What impresses her is his “roundness,” the way he embraces every aspect of a performance and everyone in it, she said. “It’s the whole world of the theater that he loves.”
As winner of the best actor MACY Award, EJ will compete in the national high school theater awards in New York. The all-expenses paid trip comes with a catch. EJ would have to miss his own graduation.
After seeking advice from several people, including principal Joanne Culverhouse, EJ made up his mind to go.
What’s next? “Through hard work and dedication, I hope to make my dream of a successful career on the Broadway stage come true,” said EJ, who will attend UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television this fall.
His mother sees another talent: “I am proud of EJ’s acting, singing and his musicianship, but it is his empathy and understanding of his fellow human beings, as well as his ability to make them laugh and smile, which makes me proudest of all.”