The college application process is filled with excitement and anxiety for many students who are searching for the university or training program they feel will best prepare them for their professional careers.
For performing arts students seeking a degree in musical theatre or performance, things can become a bit more complex with the added choice between a conservatory program or a liberal arts school.
We spoke with administrators and educators from various universities as well as some leading Broadway talent—Newsies’ Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Aladdin’s Telly Leung, and Frozen’s Jelani Alladin—to find out: What’s the difference? What are the pros and cons of each choice? How can I figure out which one is best for me?
Most conservatory programs have their own “built-in” curriculum, which are tailored to develop the specialized skills required for each of the performing arts degrees they offer. One of the benefits to this method is that it takes out some of the guesswork when it comes to fulfilling credit requirements each semester.
This also means that the majority of your courses over the next four years are predetermined. That said, most schools allow upperclassmen to select a focus in their senior year—which can vary from voice, to dance, and acting, to playwriting, and repertoire.
Corey Mitchell, theatre arts teacher at the Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, who won the inaugural special Excellence in Theatre Education Award from the Tony Awards, sends dozens of students to both kinds of theatre programs each year. In his experience, he says, “the greatest strengths of a conservatory program is the laser focus on skills—the regimented and tested tracking of young artists. Additionally, conservatories tend to offer access to theatre professionals and professional experiences. On the other hand, there are wonderful BA programs that can allow you to ‘design your own experience.’ If you are a self starter and you are a bit unsure of exactly where your interest lies, this can be a tremendously rewarding opportunity.”
If you’re looking for more autonomy and the opportunity to take courses in a wide range of studies while earning your performing arts degree, a liberal arts college will likely be for you.
The ever-evolving professional landscape is also reflected on the academic level as the line between college and conservatory becomes more and more fluid. This has produced hybrid programs—liberal arts colleges that house their own conservatories, like New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts or the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance.
Catherine Weidner, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at Ithaca College, contrasted the two approaches. “Though conservatories offer degrees (BFA’s usually), they may not provide a liberal arts education. Many colleges (like Ithaca College) offer a conservatory-style approach within a liberal arts setting. Some students (and parents) may want a more comprehensive college experience, and others choose a singular-focus conservatory approach.”
“It depends on what you need,” says Jelani Alladin, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School, who stars as Kristoff in Disney’s Broadway hit Frozen. “You have to assess yourself, and ask which of your skills needs the most training.”
Alladin embraced the opportunity to tailor his education. “I wanted to make the most of my time at NYU,” he says. “I was spending so much money and taking on so much debt at the end of it. I have to make it worth every dollar—I have to make it worth it.”
It also comes down to atmosphere and energy, according to Alex Powell of the New England Conservatory of Music. “The conservatory experience is immersive—you are meant to dive in and be surrounded by music. Your classmates will all be musicians, making conservatories a great place to build a network in the musical world. Music permeates the halls, and students talk about recent and upcoming performances and master classes, not college sports teams. Again, if a student is committed to having a life in music, they will likely thrive in the intensive atmosphere of a conservatory.”
This kind of immersive environment was a major draw for Aladdin star Leung. “At CMU, all music theater majors (or MT's, as they are affectionately called) take all the same classes as the straight acting majors, plus their singing and dance classes. That means all the music theatre and acting majors would take Shakespeare, Voice and Speech, Movement classes together.”
You can also get a better sense of what a particular school or conservatory is offering by looking at the type of degrees each is offering.
Ana Flavia Zuim, Music Assistant Professor of Vocal Performance at NYU’s Steinhardt School, explains, “We are a Vocal Performance program. Students in our program receive a B.M., which is a Bachelors in Music in Vocal Performance.
“Our students want to communicate through song,” she says. “They tend to be the best singers because they are in a vocal performance program, so their voice becomes their number one thing. They come to our program because they want to be triple threats who are vocalists first.”
Newsies star Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who is also the creator of the popular Broadway web series Submissions Only and author of the book series Jack & Louisa, earned his degree at University of Michigan.
He offers a great example of how students can take advantage of their academic courses, using them to their advantage as performers in their professional lives.
“With the world of professional theatre becoming more saturated and competitive, it’s sometimes not enough to just be talented. Especially when you’re a specific type, being able to create your own work is a huge asset when you’re trying to market yourself,” he says. “Attending a program like U of M gave me incredible training in musical theatre, but it also put me at the center of one of the best liberal arts programs in the country. In addition to my performing classes, I filled my schedule with writing seminars and workshops. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to write a web series like Submissions Only or a book series like Jack & Louisa without the academic curriculum at my disposal at Michigan. And if you think it’s a coincidence, my classmate Benj Pasek sat next to me in a lot of those creative writing classes.”
He adds, “Most people assume that to be in a Broadway show, you just have to audition, but especially with new works, they go through extensive development before they ever see an audience. I think because I was able to approach every project with a writer’s brain, I was able to be a better advocate for my character. By the time I’d graduated, I’d spent so many hours peer critiquing people’s work, that I’d developed a vocabulary to thoughtfully articulate what I felt was working and what I still had questions about. Actors are replaced in the development process all the time, but if you’re a smart actor, you make yourself a whole lot more valuable.”
Leung’s decision to attend Carnegie Mellon was also influenced by class size and financial aid packages.
“They accept only 10–15 students a year for musical theatre, and the individual attention I was going to get from that incredible faculty was very attractive to me,” he says. “CMU is an expensive private university, and a school I had originally thought was going to be impossible for me and my family, financially. But, I was very honest with them about my financial situation (that I came from a modest, middle-class working family), and they were able to piece together grants, scholarships, and work-study programs for me to be able to afford going there. All of this was based on my audition and their willingness to make it work for me and my family because they wanted me in the program.”
Leung’s advice: “Even if you think a school is out of your reach because it might be competitive or too expensive, apply anyway. Have safety schools, of course—but also don't be afraid to dream big. Don't count yourself out before you apply. You never know!”
Both college and conservatory environments require a major commitment from students. “The course load is overwhelming. But you do it because you have to,” Alladin says. “I was in studio all day from 9 AM to 6 PM, then an hour break for dinner followed by rehearsals from 7 to 11 PM. Then I would get home and have to crank out a nine-page paper about The Odyssey for the next morning.
“I had to teach myself a lot of discipline,” he adds. “I didn’t party. I turned my phone off and had to dedicate myself to my work and setting aside time to study. How do I work? How do I work efficiently? That was huge. I learned how to work efficiently with limited time. Even now I practice that. In your professional life you still have to set aside the same amount of time for your career.”
Keenan-Bolger also points out that theatre majors also have to possess business acumen. “It’s helpful to be a creator in addition to being an interpreter, and there is real skill in effectively marketing yourself,” he says. “It’s no mistake that many of the Michigan kids already have a public profile before they even graduate; when you’re on a campus of 30,000 students, taking classes alongside future doctors, tech entrepreneurs and Oscar winners, you see a bigger picture than just the audition room.”
Alladin stresses, “It’s an individual thing. What you get out of each program is what you take from the program, and what you decide to make of the program.”