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By Lauren Kay
If you’re a dancer who can sing on key, and if your theatrical chops are as sharp as your fouettés, you may have already discovered your penchant for musical theater. Current Broadway hits call for dancers who can also sing and act––triple threats. And as dance companies expand their repertories to include vocal work, these same skills are becoming more in demand on the concert stage. Mastering all three realms of performance is a major challenge, but a BFA in musical theater—there are top-notch programs all over the country—is a promising place to start. Dance Magazine chose three BFA programs to profile. Each offers its own distinct approach, but all share one main objective: to mold serious triple threats who can tackle any job, on Broadway and elsewhere.
Prepared and professional: CCM Founded in 1968, the musical theater program at the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) at the University of Cincinnati is the oldest in the country––and one of the most rigorous. From the first audition, the stakes are high: This year over 700 people auditioned for about 20 spots. As freshmen, students start trying out for the program’s five yearly productions (two main-stage and three studio-theater shows). By graduation, thanks to CCM’s wide range of courses, they’ll have studied everything from stagecraft to music theory to ballet, tap, and jazz. And with that training, they might follow in the footsteps of alumni like Ashley Brown (Mary Poppins in the Broadway show) and Tony Award winner Faith Prince.
Andrew Palermo—CCM alum, Broadway performer, and co-artistic director of Dre.dance—describes CCM’s high expectations as one of its main assets. “My classmates were super talented, so we had to rise to each other’s level,” he says. “When I left and went to New York and started auditioning, I remember thinking, ‘This is easy compared to school!’ ”
Senior Kaitlyn Davidson says the CCM program has prepared her for the competitive career of a Broadway performer. “Auditions used to be so nerve-racking,” she says. But in a required audition course taught by Aubrey Berg, chair of the musical theater department, “we learned to start an audition piece with something attention-grabbing, like an unconventional note or acting choice.” Jazz teacher Diane Lala adds, “By the time students leave, they’ve ‘auditioned’ for every type of show.”
In all aspects of the program, Berg emphasizes “the intangibles: professionalism, punctuality, and discipline,” he says. “These separate amateurs from professionals. We work on craft here, but also on preparing for the difficult life of a performer.”
Onstage and in the city: Syracuse University Syracuse University might be known for its harsh upstate-New York winters, but its musical theater program provides a warm atmosphere and a strong guiding hand into the professional world. Senior Nadine Malouf says this “welcoming vibe” drew her to SU, as did the program’s equal emphasis on acting, song, and dance.
Unlike freshmen at CCM, first-year students at SU are not allowed to perform in productions. Instead, they focus on a core group of classes, building a sense of community without the strains of competition. At the end of freshman year, they can audition for the next year’s shows, which include approximately two large musicals and four or five plays.
Of all the musical theater opportunities at SU, the Tepper Semester is top on Malouf’s “don’t-miss list.” In the spring of senior year, students relocate to New York City to immerse themselves in the musical theater scene, taking classes at Broadway Dance Center, seeing Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and attending performance workshops with industry giants. “Being in the city can be intimidating,” says Malouf. “But it’s a wake-up call. At Syracuse, you can forget how big the world is. During Tepper you get exposure and make connections while still in a supportive environment.”
While on campus, students have the chance to work with Syracuse Stage, a regional equity theater company with a separate 500-seat facility. “Every year we have at least one co-production with Syracuse Stage,” says assistant professor and Broadway veteran David Lowenstein. “Students get to observe professionals and work with them.” They can also audition for other shows at Syracuse Stage, earning Equity Membership Candidate points even before they leave school.
Big University, Intimate Program: FSU As part of the state university system, musical theater students at Florida State University in Tallahassee enjoy a conventional college experience complete with liberal arts classes and football games. But their department is tight-knit; last year’s graduating class included just nine musical theater majors. “FSU is a large university,” says Kate Gelabert, head of the musical theater BFA, “but we keep our musical theater classes small.”
Under the umbrella of FSU’s College of Music, musical theater majors have full access to vocal courses. They also work closely with acting majors and can take advantage of the university’s high-profile dance department, studying with the likes of Suzanne Farrell and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Senior Krystina Almaguer says this strong dance component drew her to FSU, and her musical theater courses have taught her to use movement to dramatic effect. “In Movement I, we learn to move as actors, to use our bodies in a more pedestrian way and influence our characters through that,” she says. “Not every character you play will be a dancer!”
The program, like CCM’s and SU’s, culminates with a showcase for agents and directors in New York City. By this point, Gelabert hopes, students have a firm grasp of the three-pronged skills needed to make it as professionals. “In the 1950s there were separate dance and singing choruses,” she says. “Nowadays there are so many triple threats out there; you have to be one too.”
For more colleges and universities with musical theater BFA programs, see the Dance Magazine College Guide.
Lauren Kay is an associate editor at Dance Spirit.
Photo: Mark Lyons, courtesy CCM