The University is quintessentially known for its incredible academics, its (historically) good football team and its large alumni network. But what about its ability to land performing stars right on the Broadway stage? Unbeknownst to some, the University’s Department of Musical Theatre is one of the highest-ranked theater departments not only in the nation, but also the world.

“I think the young people that come out of (the University’s Musical Theatre Department) are really prepared to work right away. They don’t have to come to New York and take other classes, but they are really so well prepared to audition and get a job,” said Nancy Carson, a New York-based talent agent at the Carson-Adler Agency. “They’re well rounded. They’re triple threats when they walk out of there.”

But these University students don’t just rise to Broadway stardom out of nowhere. It’s a long process to even get a meeting with an agency, let alone a chance to land a starring role on the Great White Way. It dates back at least to high school.

Making the collegiate chorus line

A prospective student fresh out of high school must compete against approximately 600 other hopefuls to be selected for a spot in the Musical Theatre Department’s 20-student freshman class.

According to Music, Theatre & Dance Prof. Brent Wagner, who also serves as the chair of the Musical Theatre Department, in addition to having the acceptable grades for the University at large, a student must also have the skills to interpret different songs and monologues, to make the pieces their own and be a team player.

However, acceptance into the program is not so cut-and-dry and even an applicant who excels in all these areas still may not merit an acceptance letter. Because the department is so selective, only the best of the best (roughly 3 percent of applicants, according to the department’s website) will receive a student ID number.

As talented as an incoming freshman class may be, it also tends to be diverse. Wagner said that the department tries to admit an equal number of men and women into the program. The department is also known for selecting students of varying appearances.

“You know, actors come in all shapes and sizes. Some programs, you go to their showcases and you see that there are only beautiful, perfect people. I like that there is a range of people when I go to U of M,” Carson said.

And the talent of the faculty and staff complements that of their students. In fact, many of the professors have worked in the business before, so they have experience with the industry firsthand.

“Our faculty is unreal,” musical theatre senior Will Burton said. “They really know what they’re doing. They know exactly what to do to prepare us.”

Once a student is admitted into the program, a long journey still lays ahead. Students take various dance, acting and singing classes at different levels.

Gavin Creel, a 1998 graduate of the program who has starred on Broadway in revivals of “Hair” and “La Cage aux Folles” and the original “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (receiving two Tony nominations in the process), said he took a lot away from his Musical Theatre courses.

“It’s appreciation for the art form,” he said. “It’s understanding a lyric and understanding a line in a musical. It’s understanding how to communicate through words and where your most powerful point on the stage is and to break beats down — all these things that a lot of schools are teaching, but Michigan is doing in a great way for musical theatre students.”

But the department does more. It tries not only to push the performance factor of its program, but also the history of theater.

“I certainly want students to know what’s happening in New York and on film and television,” Wagner said, “but I also want them to know the history of the field — to be comfortable in classics for the stage, whether ‘Brigadoon,’ or ‘Carousel’ — but also to be up to date and be comfortable if they’re auditioning for ‘Next to Normal’ or ‘The Addams Family’ so that they understand where the field has come from and what’s happening today.”

The University is also keen on following and sensing popular trends as they are manifested in the musical theater world. According to Creel, understanding both the past and present of musical theater is important.

“When I was there, there wasn’t as much of a pressure to be good at pop and contemporary styles,” he said. “Now they’re becoming way more savvy, because that’s the way the world is going.”

Participation in the Senior Showcase is another Musical Theatre event that helps prepare students for a career in the spotlight. Each year, the Musical Theatre seniors travel to New York City to perform for agents, directors and casting directors to demonstrate their talent. For many, the end-of-the-year performance is a way to jumpstart their careers. Students must make every second of their Showcase count. In Creel’s year, the Senior Showcase lasted less than 45 minutes and included presentations from all 22 students in his class.

“We sang about a 45-second song, and there were a bunch of casting directors and agents and things like that,” Creel said. “We found out if people were interested in talking to us further, and the next thing you know, I took a lot of meetings and I was one of the lucky ones who got an agent from that.”

Jenni Barber, a 2005 graduate who is starring in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on Broadway — a role she’s had since 2007 — also has a lot to thank the Showcase for.

“(My career) definitely started off with the Musical Theatre Showcase out in New York,” Barber said. “(It) certainly helped me get representation and introduced me to the casting world.”

In addition to being in national and international tours of many different Broadway shows, Barber is now preparing to audition for the TV show “Hawaii Five-O” and has been in working with new playwrights and directors along the way.

Maize and Blue on the Great White Way

Once seniors have performed in the Showcase in New York, they move onto the next part of their journey to stardom — landing a job. It often requires a blood-and-sweat summer in New York City, but the graduates feel prepared, Burton assured.

“We’ve got a lot ready, we’re put together, we know how to approach an audition scenario,” he said.

Once there, the former students audition and compete for the limited number of industry jobs in the Big Apple. Whether it be Broadway, a regional theater, a national tour, an off-Broadway production, a TV show or a film, spots are severely restricted.

However, Michigan students have a certain advantage over other talented young people who are auditioning for the same jobs. Because many casting directors and agents view the University’s program as one of the best in the world, they can sometimes immediately tell when they’re seeing an alum audition.

“Apparently, you can kind of tell when a Michigan graduate walks through the door because of how they carry themselves and you can tell that they’re comfortable with themselves,” musical theatre senior Andy Jones said.

Another benefit of the Musical Theatre Department is the long list of alumni that graduates can use as stepping stones for their careers.

“Michigan is everywhere in New York,” musical theatre senior Sean McKnight said.

McKnight, the self-proclaimed “longest running Michigan senior,” has been in the University’s program for the past 16 years and is already an established dancer and choreographer. He explained there are even certain bars that University alumni residing in New York go to watch the games on Football Saturdays.

Oftentimes, the intimate community of the Musical Theatre Department is regarded as a family, but Jones describes it another way.

“There’s this term, as we joke, ‘The Michigan Mafia,’ ” he continued. “When you leave for New York, there’s this common bond of Michigan experience. And that’s not just some little phrase that people throw around.”

It’s a feeling Creel noted when first applying to musical theater programs in high school.

“The schools I went to, for whatever reason, I thought like, ‘Those people are over there,’ and when I was at Michigan I thought, ‘These people are my people,’ ” he said.

Graduates come out of the program with confidence and a competitive edge, but still remain grounded, Wagner said — adding that one of the goals of the program is to give students the confidence to perform at their best, while keeping the competition outside of the classroom.

“When they get to New York, it will be plenty competitive. But I don’t think there’s a place for that at the school,” he said. “So that’s one thing that Michigan has a reputation for. That’s something really important to me that we continue to maintain.”

Singing and dancing in the city that never sleeps

As students move to New York and find their ways into jobs, they often recognize how hectic and busy their new lifestyle is compared to the one they enjoyed within the University bubble. Barber elaborated on the whirlwind of a life she leads.

“You’re freelance — it’s like any kind of freelance work. You just go where the job is and it changes, which makes it really exciting, but you kind of have to be on top of it — the day changes often,” she said.

Though chaotic and confusing, the students are pursuing their passion. They love what they do. They are aware of the competitive and cutthroat nature of the business — but there is no business like show business. A performer may audition five or six times for the same role and still never land it. There are high points in the industry, but there are also some lows.

“You can’t give up.” McKnight explained. “It’s a brutal industry. If you don’t love it, you won’t survive it.”

But the University has produced many success stories. Students who graduate from the Musical Theatre Department have gone on to land Tony nominations, starring spots on Broadway, film and television roles and other highly regarded accomplishments. Many students even get jobs right after the Showcase.

“Pretty much everyone in my class is working either nationally or internationally on tour or at a regional theater,” said Robert Hartwell, a 2009 graduate who is currently in “Memphis” on Broadway. “No one’s, like, scrubbing tables right now.”

To Broadway and back again

The Musical Theatre Department has made such an impact on its students’ lives that the graduates often come back to give guest lectures or become teachers — sometimes even while still a student.

McKnight teaches at MPulse Summer Performing Arts Camp — a selective three-week summer program the helps prospective high school juniors and seniors get a feel for how the School of Music, Theatre & Dance works and what it has to offer.

Creel, who is currently doing some teaching in New York, said he would also eventually like to come back to the University to teach.

“I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the school and stomping around Ann Arbor. It would be a dream to come back and teach someday,” he said. “I’m not going to do that yet, but I love Ann Arbor and I love the program and I love what it’s about.”

The rise to fame is a difficult process, but with the support of the University, a push from some friends and the backbone of a huge alumni network, everything can fall into place. Graduates follow their passion — whether that be choreographing a dance routine in a musical, reciting lines for a TV show or accepting Tony awards left and right. And they do so while knowing all the time that it was hard work at their alma mater that helped thrust them into the limelight.

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