“Thrown in the air while you’re singing the high note”: Brent Wagner from the University of Michigan (Part 1)

In this series of blog posts, I’m focusing on the musical theatre BFA: thoughts from a variety of people about the state of actor training today.

This week, I talked with Brent Wagner, chair of the Musical Theatre program at the University of Michigan. (The list of alumni from the University of Michigan is fairly stunning.) I talked at length with Mr. Wagner — our conversation will be broken up into two parts.

ROB HARTMANN: How do you think the demands that the industry places on actors may have changed over the last five or ten years?

BRENT WAGNER: Certainly, actors have to be able to do more and more — be as versatile as possible. The thing that in my time has changed the most is the vocal approach. It’s really in a state of flux. Most current material isn’t necessarily pop or rock music, but it’s also not Rodgers & Hammerstein. It’s just such a wide palette of styles — what the performers are asked to do vocally can vary so much. We have really tried to focus on the range of vocal ability, and understanding vocal styles. Not just vocal technique, but vocal styles. So if they need a country sound for one audition and then a pop sound or a rock sound or what have you, they can do it.

And some of the writing now can be at times really rough on the voice. So it’s important for kids to become vocally savvy — so they understand what their voices can and can’t do. This is actually quite frightening, but we do find signs in our auditions that high school students have the beginnings of vocal damage already — simply because of what they’re asked to sing. They don’t necessarily study technique yet — and they’re in shows and they’ll sing full out in every rehearsal, and push — and they get support and applause for doing that. And they don’t realize that that can take a toll. And sometimes I think writers aren’t always looking out for the performers. Not that that’s their job, I don’t mean that they should —

RH: Well actually one of the things that I talk about with composers is that it’s very easy for us to fall in love with the high note. It can be a substitution of range for drama. It’s about writers understanding the vocal instrument — what can you create that can be done eight times a week and not turn people’s voices into hamburger?

BW: The problem is, when you’re young, you’ll do whatever’s asked of you — because you want the job. We don’t want to make the kids fearful, but we want to alert them that they have to be protective. It may mean saying “no.”

Watch this video on YouTube.

Raena White performs “Ready To Be Loved” by UMich alums Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. 

I remember years ago one of our graduates was in a tour, and she said, I can’t sing this eight times a week, and so I’m going to withdraw. And they said, no, no, we want you, we’ll give you two performances off. She said, well, my voice just isn’t that style. And they still wanted her, because she was such a good actress. And then when she wanted to have two shows a week off as they promised — there was resentment. And she said, you know, people want you for these things, but if you try to be honest, they get upset. But I just can’t do this vocally.

I appreciated that she had learned about her voice enough that she could stand by that. But no kid coming out of school is going to feel that confident.

The other thing is the physical fitness factor — just having aerobic stamina. The performers are asked to do more physically now while they’re singing. The problem is that most people study vocal technique standing still in a studio —nobody’s going to be jumping rope in their voice lesson. But then they get onstage and they’re being thrown in the air while they’re singing the high note.

There is no way that we can completely develop students’ stamina. No school can, because we don’t do eight shows a week, week after week after week. Schools simply can’t do that. It just is something that, by the time you’re learning it, you’re in the midst of your career.

RH: What sorts of material do your students tackle?

BW: I do feel like it’s important for the kids as performers to understand the historic vocal styles, and to understand Gershwin, Kern, Porter. We do a whole semester of looking at the major songwriters before 1940. I don’t know how many traditional works they’re going to do when they get out, but that’s no reason not to learn about Rodgers & Hart or Irving Berlin.

The great writers — the way they used words and the lyrics — I just feel like all performers can benefit from that knowledge. The precision of the writing was at such a high level on some of the great songs — I feel like we can’t let go of that heritage.

For schools it’s always a balance between trying to do new works and trying to do the traditional works. It’s harder for a school to do a new work, because the work has to be fairly finished in some form when we take it on — there just isn’t a lot of time for all the rewrites that you’d normally do if you were working with people eight hours a day. And so to help kids prepare for new works, we try to balance building a character in a show over a lengthy rehearsal process, with assignments that are very short, quick and “do this by tomorrow.” I want them to be self-sufficient, or you know, have enough tools and techniques they can use on their own so that they don’t flounder. Because, without a certain ability to do something quickly, the students won’t be ready for the new shows.

Watch this video on YouTube.

UMich alum Cortney Wolfson performs “Blue Hair” by Joe Iconis, music directed by UMich alum Justin Paul

Click here to read Part 2 of Rob’s interview with Brent Wagner! 

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