New Musical Theatre and the BFA: Creating Musical Theatre’s Future

Rob Hartmann here — composer/lyricist/bookwriter, theatre journalist and critic, and professor (at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.) In my last series of posts, I had a number of conversations with people involved in developing new musical theatre on a professional level — directors, producers, choreographers, actors and so on. Next, I’ll be digging a little deeper — investigating the source of tomorrow’s musical theatre talent: university theatre programs which offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theatre, and how they relate to the creation and development of new musical works.

This is a subject which I’m eager to explore. My undergraduate degree happens to be a musical theatre BFA: I wrote my first musical in high school, but was always interested in performing. I went to the University of Arizona, in Tucson, the town where I grew up. By the time I graduated, I knew that I did not have the fire-in-the-belly that it takes to become a professional actor — but I did have that level of passion for writing and composing. I’ve always felt that my performance training has made me a better musical writer — you come away with a gut-level knowledge of what it takes to put a song across on stage.

In my writing career, I’ve had a number of opportunities to develop new works at universities. These experiences range from writing a show specifically for a college cast and developing the work with those actors all the way to a full production; workshopping and polishing new material in a shorter timeframe; and putting new work up in a staged reading format with college actors. What I’m most often struck by is the immense amount of passion and energy that students pour into their work on a new piece. It’s incredibly gratifying to see young actors pushing themselves to the limit — they open the floodgates and just love the work whole heartedly.

There are a growing number of universities offering a musical theatre BFA — almost one hundred fifty, in nearly every state. As each program tries to distinguish itself from the pack, working on new musicals becomes a core point of difference — is the program training its students to be able to handle new work, or only running them through the classics? Obviously a musical theatre student must be familiar with the musical theatre canon — and know his or her likely roles in the classics — but students who plan to work professionally must also be ready to take on challenging new work. (My guess is that many current BFA students may be reading this, having come to this site to find new material for themselves.)

In future posts, I plan to talk to a range of people who see the relationship between BFA programs and new musical theatre from a variety of perspectives: faculty members in different disciplines; students and recent graduates; and writers who have had work produced or developed at universities. We’ll find out what exactly is happening in the places where the future of musical theatre is being shaped, in classrooms, rehearsal halls, and college theatres across the country.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Cortney Wolfson performs “Blue Hair” by Joe Iconis at a performance at the University of Michigan, music directed by Justin Paul, filmed by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. #wherearetheynow

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