A one-time-only performance at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, MI, features more alumni and current students than can be accommodated in dressing rooms at the 3,500-seat auditorium. Speakers including musical composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors) and producer Jeffrey Seller (Rent) will also appear. Overtures, songs, dances and spoken tributes are expected. About 50 alumni will make the pilgrimage back to their campus to perform in celebration of a program widely considered to be a major breeding ground for musical theatre talent (five alumni performers have been nominated for Tony Awards).
Faculty members Brent Wagner, Linda Goodrich and Mark Madama direct and choreograph the show tune-filled concert, to include Musical Theatre alumni Nick Blaemire (Cry-Baby), Courtney Balan (Cry-Baby), Todd Buonopane (Grease, …Spelling Bee), David Burtka (Gypsy), Barrett Foa (Avenue Q), Alexander Gemignani (Les Misérables, Assassins, Road Show), Danny Gurwin (Little Women), Tony Award nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), Ian Knauer (By Jeeves, State Fair), Eric Millegan (Jesus Christ Superstar), Brynn O'Malley (Wicked, Sunday in the Park With George), Daniel Reichard (Jersey Boys) and many more.
"Our alumni are our ambassadors," said Wagner, chair of the U-M Musical Theatre Department, whose past students now include composers, producers, casting directors, agents and Tony Award-nominated performers who work on Broadway, Off-Broadway and around the country. "The next generation of musical theatre performers are watching them, asking, 'Where did they go to school?'"
Wagner came from Syracuse University in 1984 to head the fledgling program. Among his goals then were "restructuring the curriculum, adding additional faculty specifically for musical theatre, increasing enrollment and adding production opportunities for the students," Wagner told Playbill.com.
The idea of creating the musical theatre department at U-M came as early as 1979, and it was largely spearheaded by School of Music dean Paul Boylan, now retired, who will speak at the concert. The first graduating class was in 1983. Wagner worked to further formalize the department starting in fall 1984. Before it was the norm in academic musical theatre departments, U-M's program was offering world premieres (A Wonderful Life, the revised Dragons, both by Sheldon Harnick), rare revivals of historically important work (Lerner and Weill's Love Life) and, lately, workshops of new musicals hoping for wider futures (Georgia Stitt's The Water, Mark Waldrop and Brad Ross' Luck, Paul Loesel and Scott Burkell's Ella Minnow Pea, and others).
"It's a coming together of the past, present and future of the Musical Theatre program," Wagner said of the March 21 celebration. "Audiences will see for themselves the impact the University of Michigan is having on American musical productions. It's staggering to think about."
With a 30-piece orchestra on stage, "most of the repertoire for the evening will be devoted to numbers associated with Michigan, whether from productions, classwork, showcases or special concerts." The work of Frank Loesser, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock is taught in classes; naturally, the songs of the Broadway legends will be included in the March 21 concert.
Songs by several U-M grads who went on to become musical theatre writers — Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, The Addams Family), Tony Award winner Jeff Marx (Avenue Q), David Kirshenbaum (Vanities, Summer of '42) — will be featured.
School of Music alumnus Sam Davis, a respected New York City orchestrator, arranger, conductor, pianist and composer, has arranged a completely new overture to start the show, made up strictly of songs from shows produced at Michigan during the last 25 years.
Songs from formerly produced U-M undergraduate shows Big River, A Wonderful Life, Love Life, Anything Goes, Rent and Candide will be performed, along with numbers from contemporary shows which have given work to alumni — The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Jersey Boys, Wicked and Avenue Q, among others.
The alumni cast will also include Becky Bahling, Stanley Bahorek, Jenni Barber, Cathryn Basile, Joel T. Bauer, Darren Biggart, Matthew Chellis, Christy Faber, Monique French, Susan Grady, Kate Guyton, Rachel Hoffman, Anne Horak, Eric Jackson, Marc Kessler, Chelsea Krombach, Max Kumangai, Doug LaBreque, Jody Madaras, Sean McKnight, Marisa Meyer, Shina Ann Morris, Sydney Morton, Jessica Murphy, Susan Owen, Justin Paul, Annie Ramsey, Josh Rhodes, Natalie Ross, Darryl Semira, Alexis Sims, Dani Spieler, Brian Spitulnik, Beth Thompson, Toni Trucks, Jake Wilson and Michael Zahler.
Wagner expects it to be an emotional homecoming.
Tony Award-nominated alumni Hunter Foster (Little Shop of Horrors), Erin Dilly (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Gavin Creel (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Jennifer Laura Thompson (Urinetown) were invited to perform in the concert but were not able to make it due to other obligations — including family and work. Creel is in Broadway's Hair, Foster is in Lincoln Center Theater's Happiness, for example. (The fifth Tony-nominated alum, Keenan-Bolger, will perform Frank Loesser's "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble" in the concert.)
In an email, Creel told Playbill.com, "The teaching, the facilities, the campus, the faculty, and the incredible student support system, all gave me the best possible tools to help me succeed in this wild and insane business. Chosing The University of Michigan was the best decision I made as an artist."
Foa, whose roles at U-M included Billy in Anything Goes and Pangloss/Voltaire in Candide, told Playbill.com, "One of the selling points of U of M for me, was that the Musical Theatre Department is housed in one of the best liberal arts schools in the country. The best actors are those who are intelligent and well-rounded, so while the acting, singing, and dancing taught there are some of the best in country, students also get to have a real college experience. ...Complete with a diverse student body, a beautiful campus, Big Ten championship sports teams, a Greek system, all in the kick-ass, liberal, mid-western college town of Ann Arbor. Being from New York City, and knowing I was moving back after college, it was invaluable to get away and gain some perspective of the 'real world' outside of the theatre and outside of New York."
Keenan-Bolger, who played Sally Bowles in Cabaret at U-M told Playbill.com, "I have no doubt that I will look back on my days at U of M as one of the best times of my life. Those years are so important in shaping not just the kind of performer you become but the kind of human being you aspire to be. I can't imagine a better place to grow and learn and I feel very lucky to have had those four years in the musical theatre department."
Gemignani, who was Moonface Martin in U-M's Anything Goes and Frederik in A Little Night Music, told Playbill.com, "A major strength of the school is the practical application of class work in its highly professional productions as well as a solid foundation and respect for the history of the art form," "On a personal note, I always felt extremely safe and supported by the entire faculty, who were all very different. It seems to me a great education in any field requires different perspectives from the faculty with a shared goal for the student body and the Musical Theatre Department at Michigan did just that."
Also performing March 21 will be the entire current student body of the Musical Theatre Department (classes of 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) — about 80 young performers. (Since its founding, the department has graduated more than 400.)
Musical director Cynthia Kortman Westphal will conduct members of the University Symphony Band.
The guest speakers will include former executive director of Actors' Equity Alan Eisenberg, producer and U-M alumnus Matthew Rego, Judy Dow Rumelhart, producer Jeffrey Seller (a U-M grad not from the department), George Shirley, University of Michigan Provost Theresa Sullivan, School of Music, Theatre & Dance Dean Christopher Kendall.
U-M School of Music alumni or faculty who have made names for themselves as composers and/or theatre musicians and music directors will be heard that night, including longtime department musical director/coach/accompanist Jerry DePuit, Sam Davis, Grant Wenaus, Ben Whiteley and Lynne Shankel.
For tickets and information, call (734) 764-2538 or visit music.umich.edu/mt25.
The U-M Musical Theatre Department is a program within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Collaborative in design, 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."
The program offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
"The very nature of the arts is interdisciplinary," Wagner said. "We strive to integrate music, theatre and dance into what has become an intensely competitive and specialized field."