Musical theatre is constantly changing, and to prepare the next generation of ingenues, belters, and leading men, colleges and universities must change along with it. Broadway hits like Kinky Boots, Next to Normal, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and many others have ushered in more pop and rock to the Great White Way, while the omnipresent Hamilton is among the first shows to successfully integrate rap and hip-hop with musical theatre. Degree programs across the country are accordingly reshaping and modifying their programs to keep their musical theatre training programs relevant, while also staying rooted in the basics.
But just because Broadway is in New York City doesn’t mean that all the best programs are there. In fact, many of musical theatre’s biggest stars didn’t study in the epicenter of song and dance. The 13 programs listed below have turned out some amazing success stories, offering unique coursework that can make a performer stand out from the chorus line.
Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, takes advantage of its proximity to Cleveland to partner with Cleveland Play House, Cleveland Public Theatre, and Dobama Theatre to offer educational and performing opportunities for students, including annual productions with PlayhouseSquare and Beck Center for the Arts. Students receive a bachelor’s of music instead of a BFA, which means an additional year of piano and music theory. Alumni include Kyle-Jean Baptiste, Ciara Renee, Corey Mach, Jill Paice, and Katie Rockwell.
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh focuses on developing a sense of collaboration. By their senior year, students have received acting, singing, and dancing training, as well as courses in on-camera work for film and television. One of the most popular classes is “Art of Cabaret,” in which students can enroll in their junior year. “The course focuses on singing in the cabaret tradition and culminates in a live performance at Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera Cabaret,” says Erin Scott, the drama school’s director of marketing and communications. “We invite a well-known composer to join the students as they perform his or her repertoire.” Past guests have included Stephen Schwartz, Andrew Lippa, Stephen Flaherty, Richard Maltby Jr., and David Shire. Students also have the chance to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, the Moscow Art Theatre, London’s Drama Centre, and other schools in France, South Africa, China, and South Korea. Alumni include Joe Manganiello, Leslie Odom Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, Megan Hilty, Josh Gad, Telly Leung, and Christian Borle.
The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music claims to be one of the oldest musical theatre programs in the U.S. The four-year BFA’s curriculum combines courses in music, dance, acting, performance, speech, and movement, in addition to general education. Two showcases bookend the training experience: a freshman showcase in Cincinnati for which students select a theme and blend songs, narration, and monologues, and a senior showcase in NYC in which students perform for agents and casting directors. Alumni who’ve found success on Broadway include Lisa Howard, Christy Altomare, Shoshana Bean, Andrew Chappelle, Tony Yazbeck, Aaron Albano, and Karen Olivo.
While the faculty at Elon University in North Carolina think that classroom education is important for their musical theatre majors, they want to focus more on getting students onstage. Students can perform in musicals, student-directed one-act plays, recitals, singing ensembles, and dance shows. Students in the BFA program can participate in the university’s study abroad programs, which include classical studies in Greece, as well as semester residencies in London. The school often hosts visiting performers who conduct seminars, workshops, performances, and master classes. Some of these guests have included Kelli O’Hara, Dave Clemmons, and John Bucchino.
In the heart of Boston’s theatre district, Emerson College endorses a holistic approach to the musical theatre craft. The program offers two showcases for seniors: the first, an annual spring showcase, which takes place in Boston, and the second a fall showcase in New York City, in which recently graduated seniors perform for industry members and notable graduates. Alumni include Andrea Martin, Henry Winkler, Joseph Leo Bwarie, and Betsy Morgan.
Ithaca College in upstate New York offers a rigorous, performance-oriented training program that includes more than 20 hours of in-class studio instruction per week, including private voice lessons, vocal repertoire class, basic piano skills, scene study, voice and movement for the stage, ballet, jazz, and modern dance. In their junior year students can study British drama and culture at Ithaca College’s London Center, and senior year focuses on workshops and master classes to ease the transition to the professional world. Many students attend a one-week field studies trip to New York City, where they can connect with alumni working in the industry. Some of those include Jeremy Jordan, Aaron Tveit, Megan Ort, Zach James, and Amanda Naughton.
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor encourages collaboration among its performing arts departments. For about three of the four years in the BFA program, students take classes in their major area of study, with the other quarter dedicated to liberal arts electives. University of Michigan offers a dual-degree program, and musical theatre students can simultaneously work on their BFA along with a B.A. or B.S. Basement Arts, a student-run theatre company, also stages 25-30 productions. Some notable alumni include Gavin Creel, Erin Dilly, Hunter Foster, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Andrew Lippa.
Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., offers students individualized attention, with most courses capped at 16 students. The intimate environment means many performance opportunities, from the school’s mainstage season to the student-run theatre company, Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre. Students can also get involved in New Musicals Workshop, giving them a firsthand look at the process of developing and rehearsing a new musical with working professionals from the ground up. Graduates of the BFA program include Clinton Sherwood, Jessica Wright, Brian Collier, Sierra Boggess, and Ian Liberto.
The University of Oklahoma at Norman’s A. Max Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre offers conservatory-style training to 50 students at a time. The program’s goal is to “provide students with the necessary training and tools to make them highly marketable, employable, and successful both on and off the stage,” says Janis Rasnic, the school’s admissions and recruitment specialist. Notable alumni include Kristen Beth Williams, Hollis Scarborough, C.K. Edwards, Annie Funke, Lindsey Bliven, Skyler Adams, and Adrianna Hicks.
Penn State University in State College, Pa., has three tiers: education, performance, and travel. While studies are of the utmost importance, the BFA program offers many performance opportunities, from new work to Shakespeare to film and new media. The school recently produced Joe Iconis’s Be More Chill, helmed by program director John Simpkins, and Iconis has been commissioned to write musicals for the school’s seniors. Students are also encouraged to study abroad through a partnership with the Theatre Academy London. Some notable alumni include Natalie Weiss, Carly Hughes, Caroline Bowman, Jeremy Greenbaum, Nathan Lucrezio, and Emma Stratton.
Point Park University in Pittsburgh is known for turning out triple-threats. With a rigorous dance program, the school gives musical theatre students the advantage of practicing pirouettes and perfecting turns with the resources of the school’s conservatory dance program. Point Park University’s performance venue, the Pittsburgh Playhouse, is home to four theatre companies—the REP, Conservatory Theatre Company, Conservatory Dance Company, and Playhouse Jr. The theatre companies on campus give students the opportunity to perform with professional artists and observe productions from behind the scenes.
Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., has developed a reputation as the “pop/rock” school, as the program’s faculty are dedicated to and experienced in the genre. Kevin Covert, director of the musical theatre program, stresses that the school hopes BFA graduates come out not only with the performance capabilities to make it on Broadway, but also with the skills to make them smart businesspeople. In courses like “Business of the Business” and “Prep for the Profession,” students learn about branding and marketing themselves, life and money management skills, and web design for artists. “Of course, they’ll have a leg up, having been trained how to sing pop/rock music,” says Covert. “But they should also leave knowing how to be a smart businessperson, how to be a smart actor, and how to hit the ground running in New York.”
Syracuse University in upstate New York partners with Syracuse Stage, giving students the chance to study and work collaboratively with working professionals both backstage and onstage. “We believe firmly that musical theatre artists are theatre artists first and foremost,” says Ralph Zito, professor and chair of the department of drama. “They need to be able to read, analyze, and interpret a script and a score; to understand how the material informs and is informed by the entire theatrical and musical canon; to understand and vividly bring to life their individual piece of the puzzle; and to collaborate positively and proactively to the realization of the work at hand.” Some notable alums working include Jessie Mueller, Josh Young, Patti Murin, Taye Diggs, Vanessa Williams, and Julia Murney.
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