The Musical Theatre BFA: Finding the Right Path

In this series of blog posts, I’ve been having conversations with a variety of people about the musical theater BFA — both with faculty members, and with some graduates of programs.

In this installment, for a moment I’ll share my own thoughts — as a writer/composer/lyricist, as an educator who works with musical theater writers, and as someone who sees a lot of young actors, both in auditions and in workshop/masterclass situations.

As I mentioned in my introduction to the series, my undergraduate degree is a BFA in musical theater performance from the University of Arizona. (My graduate degree is an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, where I now teach.) I happened to grow up in Tucson, Arizona, and sort of fell into going to school there (my mother was on the faculty of the medical school, so tuition was cheaper than going anywhere else.) I was lucky, because the training at the U of A happened to be excellent: eight semesters of acting, three of musical theater class, extensive voice and movement training (for voice, we studied the Linklater technique, which I make use of to this day), classes in dialect, classes in screen acting, classes in audition technique, classes in period style — and of course dance classes and voice lessons. The faculty was fairly young and dynamic — they were artists who had worked professionally (and continued to do so); and while there was a large courseload, there was also time to pursue other projects — small black box spaces where you could put on shows at midnight if you wanted to.

The best thing for me (as I also mentioned in my introduction) is that the program was intense enough that I learned that, as much as I enjoyed acting, I did not have the desire or drive to pursue it professionally. But so many of the things you learn when you’re up on your feet acting a role are things that will make your writing and composing more robust and alive. How emotion lives on the breath; when a lyric is too dense and doesn’t “land”; when you have to push too hard to “sell” a song because the writing is unclear.

Watch this video on YouTube.

“The Atlantic” from Rob’s musical Vanishing Point, performed by Cristin Hubbard. 

Through years of hearing my classmates sing — first in shows together, then music directing them, writing vocal arrangements for them, and eventually having them sing songs I’d written — I got a hands-on sense of vocal range which has served all my writing well. That’s what performance training can do for the aspiring writer: put you literally in the shoes of the people who will be bringing your material to life.

To come back to the musical theater BFA — some conversations I have had with people about their college experiences have brought up elements of some training programs that weren’t so good. Rather than call out any program specifically, here are some general thoughts from those conversations.

  • Is there room for you? By that I mean — some highly-touted programs have so many students that there simply aren’t enough roles to go around. Some graduates (women especially) come out having played one major role, and that’s it.
  • And along those lines — will they know what to do with you? In a discussion with an extremely talented young actor, he said that at both undergraduate institutions where he studied, he was told, “Listen, you’re going to be doing The King and I and Miss Saigon and maybe Flower Drum Song and that’s it” — because he’s Asian. The faculty were trapped in their own limited ideas about casting. (This actor then booked a Broadway show a month after moving to New York — and it wasn’t any of those three shows.)
  • How engaged are the faculty with the realities of the industry? The faculty don’t necessarily need to have worked on Broadway — but they should be attuned to what a working professional needs to know. A friend who is a fairly recent addition to a mid-sized state university faculty shared her frustrations with me: she worked as a professional actress for many years, regionally and on national tours. She began assembling a library of scores and librettos of current Broadway shows so that the students could use them in class, and get a handle on current material. As she was planning an audition techniques class, incorporating everything she had learned over the course of her own career, one of her colleagues took her aside. “Listen,” he said, “why are you trying so hard? None of these kids are going to go anywhere. They won’t even leave town. They’ll end up working at the drugstore. Just take it easy.” None of her colleagues had worked as union actors or directors themselves. Facing that attitude, she was, as you can imagine, horrified.
  • Similarly, an actress shared with me the criticisms she would get in audition classes — why would you wear that? You’ll never get cast wearing that sweater. The faculty simply wanted to instill fear, to make students feel powerless. One might explain it away by saying that perhaps they wanted to replicate the stress level of professional auditions — but that’s being generous to them. (This actress happened to land a national tour almost right out of school — and at the audition, she wore what she felt good in.)

In the end, there are many factors to think about — the internet is full of “top ten” and “top twenty” lists that rank musical theatre programs — but “name recognition” is just one piece of the puzzle. In every conversation I’ve had with actors who were satisfied with their college training, they all mentioned that, when they visited and auditioned, they just felt that the energy was right. Actors are usually well attuned to the “vibe” of a situation, the “feel” of a room: so if you’re looking for a program, you want to have your “antennae” up, asking these questions. Is there room for you? Do the faculty make you feel powerful — or powerless? Do they seem willing to see you for who you are — and who you might become? And your gut will tell you the right path to follow.

Watch this video on YouTube.

The anthem of staying true to what drives you as an artist: Heidi Blickenstaff performs “A Way Back To Then” from [title of show].

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