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Musical theatre building legacy, reputation as top program

Alumni return March 21 to perform in first-ever anniversary concert

Watch the videos:
Building a proud legacy >
Musical Theatre Chair Brent Wagner talks about the upcoming 25th anniversary concert >

Since the mid 1980s, Department of Musical Theatre alumni have made an impressive and indelible mark on Broadway, from breakthrough roles as leading actors to creating memorable musical compositions to producing blockbuster shows.

Now in its 25th year, the program that helped cultivate the talent and foster hopes of many successful alumni is widely recognized as a preeminent training ground for American musical theatre performers.

In several weeks, the proof of that success will be on stage where it all began.

Broadway and film legend Gene Kelly works with MT students during a master class in 1987. Photo by Paul Martinez.

Brent Wagner (center), associate professor and chair of the Department of Musical Theatre, and Jerry Depuit, retired assistant professor of musical theatre (at piano on right) working with students during a Power Center rehearsal, 1995

Big River, October 2007. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

More than 50 musical theatre graduates from Broadway, national and international tours, film and television will return March 21 for a 25th Anniversary Celebration concert. The performance at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor will feature notable alumni alongside current students in a varied program of Broadway hits and numbers from past University productions.

Numbers include “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Jersey Boys,” “Wicked” and “Avenue Q” along with songs from undergraduate shows “Big River,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Anything Goes,” “Rent” and “Candide,” among others.

“It’s a one-night only coming together of the past, present and future of the Musical Theatre program,” says Brent Wagner, chair, Department of Musical Theatre, who counts composers, producers, casting directors and agents, in addition to performers, among those alumni winning praise for their work on Broadway, off-Broadway and in touring productions.

“Audiences will see for themselves the impact the University of Michigan is having on American musical productions,” he says. “It’s staggering to think about.”

Wagner came from Syracuse University in 1984 to establish the musical theatre program, which stands alongside other the widely recognized elite schools of their kind in the country.

Through the years graduates have drawn critical acclaim for their performances on Broadway, including Tony Award nominations for Hunter Foster (“Little Shop of Horrors”), Gavin Creel (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”), Celia Keenan-Bolger (“Spelling Bee”), Jennifer Thompson (“Urinetown”) and Erin Dilly (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”).

Alumni have appeared in touring companies of “The Full Monty,” “Cats,” “South Pacific,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Mama Mia,” “Ragtime,” “West Side Story” and “Evita,” and many others.

In the rather small, yet breathtaking galaxy of Broadway, word about talent — and successful musical theatre programs — spreads as quickly as a hit show.

“Our alumni are our ambassadors,” Wagner says. “The next generation of musical theater performers are watching them, asking ‘Where did they go to school?’”

Word is spreading.

During the last five years, applications for the program have increased nearly 80 percent to include hundreds of students from around the country.

The Department of Musical Theatre is a uniquely structured program within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Wagner says. Collaborative in design and nature, the program draws on faculty from music, theatre and dance departments to teach voice, acting and dance. With faculty who worked on Broadway, television and film, the students learn career strategies based on the current realities of professional theatre.

Another appealing feature, Wagner says, is the dual Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, which offers students a more diverse educational experience in courses outside of the music school.

“The very nature of the arts is interdisciplinary,” he says. “We aim to integrate music, theatre and dance into what has become an intensely competitive and specialized field.”
Success, however, isn’t merely measured in fame or longevity.

“We look at the students individually,” Wagner says. “They come to us as students barely out of high school, and leave as adults who must begin their professional careers. Being with them during that transition is an extremely special time, and we try to make sure they’re not just ready for a career, but ready for life.”


1979: Paul Boylan named dean of School of Music. He pushes for a program in musical theatre.

1980: Board of Regents approves Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in musical theatre.

1983: Groundbreaking of new wing of school to make room for recital halls and expanded classrooms.

1983: Musical theatre program officially begins.

1984: Brent Wagner, who taught at Interlochen and started musical theatre program at Syracuse University, named director.

1985: (April) “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” a revue of the work of Jule Styne marks program’s first production under Wagner. Jerry DePuit hired as music director.
(October) Margaret Dow Towsley Center dedicated.

1986: “A Wonderful Life,” a world premiere including U-M students receives popular and critical acclaim.

1987: “Love Life,” the first revival of the 1948 musical by Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner considered among best shows of the year.

(December) Gene Kelly visits school. Within five years, other guests include Sheldon Harnick, Edie Adams, Nancy Dussault and Debbie Reynolds.

1988: Friends of Musical Theatre founded by Ted Ciganik and Judy Dow Alexander.

1989: (Spring) Veteran dancer and former Joffrey Ballet soloist Mary Ellen Guinn teaches tap dancing.

(Fall) Department stages “If My Friends Could See Me Now: A Tribute to Cy Coleman”
Original musical revue written and directed by Brent Wagner features an elaborate collaboration between Department of Musical Theatre, Center for Performing Arts Technology, Department of Theatre & Drama, and University Jazz Band.

1990: Productions include “The Threepenny Opera” and “A Little Night Music.”

1992: Productions include “Pal Joey,” and “A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine.” Directed by faculty choroegrapher Tim Millett.

1993: Productions include “Brigadoon” and “Quilt,” staged during AIDS Awareness Week.

1994: Tenth anniversary celebration features “An Evening with Sheldon Harnick” at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

1995: First Senior Showcase. Director Wagner takes 13 seniors to New York to present to agents and casting directors at Douglas Fairbanks Theatre on 42nd Street.

1996: (Spring) U-M musical theatre graduates are in nearly every major show on Broadway, Toronto and national touring production.

1997: Productions include “The Music Man” and Sweeney Todd”

1998: Anything Goes” plays to sold out audiences at Mendelssohn Theatre.

1999: (Spring) “Candide” conductor Ben Whiteley, who also was conductor of “Cats” on Broadway contends the Department of Musical Theatre is commonly regarded as among top four programs of its kind in the country.

(Fall) Applications to program increases to 255.

2001: New York Times article mentions U-M program as one of the most respected in country.

2003: Production of “Oklahoma” dedicated to Paul Boylan. Monique French is first musical theatre student to win the Annual School of Music concerto competition (for voice).

Applications increase to 335.

2004: U-M graduates among Tony Award-nominated plays and musicals, include Hunter Foster for best performance by a leading actor for “Little Shop of Horrors,” and Matthew Rego, co-producer of “Wicked.”

2005: U-M graduate Erin nominated for leading role in “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang.”

2006: Towsley Musical Theatre Studio opens.

2007: Productions include “Tommy” and “Big River.”

Alan Eisenberg, former executive director of Actors Equity, and Mark Zimmerman, president of Equity Council, visit. Eisenberg establishes an award for a graduating senior in musical theatre.

2008: “Carousel” performed. Applications increase to nearly 600. Department annually admits a freshman class of 20 students.

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