Musical Adaptations: Musical Theatre Artists Are No Longer Just Actors, Writers, or Singers, and Schools Are Finding New Ways to Train Them

By Gilroy, Maggie | American Theatre, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Musical Adaptations: Musical Theatre Artists Are No Longer Just Actors, Writers, or Singers, and Schools Are Finding New Ways to Train Them


Gilroy, Maggie, American Theatre


THE FIRST GRADUATE FROM ONE OF THE oldest musical theatre programs in the country hopped on a Greyhound bus, her tap shoes in her suitcase, and traveled to New York City. Soon after, she made her Broadway debut in a little-known musical by a composer she hadn't heard of and earned a Tony nomination for her performance in 1971.

Though Pamela Myers's Cinderella-like journey from a student at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music's (CCM) musical theatre program to the role of Marta in the Stephen Sondheim show Company is every musical theatre kid's dream, it is not something the program's current chairman, Aubrey Berg, encourages for his students anymore. "I think for anybody to do that nowadays is pretty much impossible," says Berg. "You can't just arrive at the Port Authority with your suitcase and hope to be discovered."

Instead of encouraging students to follow this old script, programs are now aiming to prepare students for the current market, in which actors increasingly write their own shows, classically trained singers must master hip-hop dance breaks, and dancers are expected to act. From performance to playwriting, it is the interdisciplinaryartist that is now the goal of educators. While CCM had Myers's career to hang its hat on when Berg arrived there more than 30 years ago, he began to notice that students needed further training in acting and dance beyond just voice. He now says that the program is known for its "triple-threat training."

But even the old singing/dancing/acting triumvirate has expanded, as programs such as Pace University of NYC's musical theatre program are now training their actors to follow the hyphenated lead of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dave Malloy. And at some playwriting programs, students are being taught to follow the footsteps of writers like Marsha Norman and Sybille Pearson in crafting books for musicals as well as plays. Meanwhile some music conservatories are finding ways for vocal performance majors to expand their skill sets. After all, look at the path of two classically trained singers, Kelli O'Hara and Kristin Chenoweth.

DAVID GOMEZ WAS ATTRACTED TO PACE UNIVERSITY'S program because of the freedom it allows students to create their own work. Gomez wrote a musical in high school and hoped to continue on that track on top of his performance coursework at Pace. Not long after arriving at Pace, he found other performance majors with the same writing habit.

"It felt like a dirty secret," Gomez says. "We would meet in practice rooms and share our songs. Some people were just songwriters, and we eventually formed this collective need to share stories and songs."

His music theory teacher, Ryan Scott Oliver, recognized the impulse: He also performs as well as writes. So the composer/lyricist crafted a two-part fundamentals in musical theatre writing course for those students. "It helps them understand what it means, how a piece is constructed," Oliver says. "All that can guide them as actors once they understand what the writer is dealing with, once they understand what their process is."

Gomez was a sophomore when the class began with 12 students in the first semester, and he wrote for his performing peers, including for a freshman showcase called "Hatched." While Gomez remained a performance-based musical theatre major, he entered New York University's graduate musical theatre writing program immediately after graduating from Pace in 2014 and completed an MFA in musical theatre writing in May 2016.

"I was fortunate to be in two programs that were very eager to grow and have changed a lot," Gomez says. "Being in a program that doesn't have a musical theatre [writing] program when you arrive and then does when you leave, then there's almost this legacy of that."

The interest is only growing. Pace's course, currently in its fifth year, grew to 30 students during the fall 2016 semester. "That really speaks to the interest of the students in what we do and how we develop work," Oliver adds. …

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