Stewart Joiner Davis started on a path to performing in Broadway musicals 11 years ago, when he was born in a trunk at the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho.
Just kidding. That was the origin story of Judy Garland’s character in the 1954 re-make of A Star Is Born. But it wouldn’t be hard to believe that Davis, 11, who recently won first place in the elementary school division of the Oscar Hammerstein Museum and Theatre Education Center’s 2023 International Solo Contest, was destined for the stage at birth—or even before. Babies kick in the womb; Stewart was making music.
“He was drumming all the time,” said his mom, Amber Joiner, who is an adjunct professor in political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Then, as a tiny baby, he would drum on anything. Soon, he started singing every song he heard.”
Stewart’s sister, Eleanor, who is three years older than her brother, also is a budding dancer and singer. The siblings started singing together when Stewart was a toddler, a tradition that continues. At home, random everyday situations may bring a tune to mind, and the pair will break into song.
“It’s like living in a musical,” Amber said. “That’s our life.”
Eleanor Joiner, a sophomore at Reno High School who has been in more than 20 musical theater productions, sang the National Anthem with her brother at a recent Reno Aces game.
“I am so proud of Stew, and I love singing with him every day,” she said.
They practice together. “We play around with harmonies a lot. … The truth is I taught him everything he knows,” she said. “Seriously, though. I am so lucky to have such a talented and funny best friend.”
In 2015, when Stewart was 3, Eleanor auditioned for a role in the Sierra Nevada Ballet’s production of Peanutcracker, a shorter, narrated version of The Nutcracker. Stewart also tried out; they both got parts. Since then, the boy has performed in a total of 15 musical theater productions in Northern Nevada and California. Connections with audiences, he said, motivate him to work hard on his characters.
“(It’s) knowing that the crowd is going to be happy if I keep practicing,” Stewart said. “It also helps that I have friends in the show that are like a big family, and we’re all working hard together.”
Some of his favorite roles have been Les in Newsies, Charlie in Holiday Inn, Oliver in Oliver! Jr. and the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland Jr. His two most recent parts have been in Western Nevada Musical Theatre Company productions at Western Nevada College.
For the Hammerstein contest, Stewart sang “Ten Minutes Ago” from Cinderella. The competition honors and celebrates the works of Oscar Hammerstein, often called the “Father of Broadway,” who contributed lyrics to more than 800 songs for shows, including The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I, Oklahoma! and South Pacific. The contest was created in 2021 in response to the challenges of teaching virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contestants around the world record a one-minute video of themselves singing a portion of a song written by Hammerstein. The judges, who are voice coaches and professors, narrow the field to five singers, who then record full versions of their songs for the final round.
Stewart, who said he tried to put the contest out of his mind after he became a finalist, watched the awards ceremony online. “I was too nervous to think about it, he said. When his name was announced, “I screamed I was so excited!” he said. Stewart’s winning performance can be viewed on YouTube, and the contest’s awards’ ceremony is posted on the Oscar Hammerstein Museum and Theatre Education Center’s Facebook page.
He won a cash prize of $250, a voice lesson with Broadway and American Idol veteran Justin Guarini, and the opportunity to perform and record his winning song in Oscar Hammerstein’s living room at Highland Farm in Doylestown, Penn., where the maestro wrote several of his hit tunes. He is scheduled to travel there in September to perform in Hammerstein’s home at a community sing-along festival.
Stewart, who this fall will be entering the sixth grade in the gifted and talented magnet at Swope Middle School, also loves performing on electric guitar and drums, is a nationally competitive dancer and fencer, plays on a soccer team, and is working on his Path to Eagle in Boy Scouts. The 11-year-old has a busy schedule.
“It’s challenging,” said Kyle Davis, Stewart’s dad. “A lot goes into school, too, but he does very well in his studies. He takes school very seriously.”
With an already impressive resume as a performer, it may seem as though Stewart’s career path is aimed straight at Broadway, but his interests aren’t limited to the entertainment field.
“I like engineering,” Stewart said. “I would like to design planes and cars and especially the engines for them. But I hope theater will always be in my life, because I love it. Even if I do something else, I’ll always want to perform, maybe in a band or in musicals.”