Backstage.com’s recent listing of the top Musical Theater Programs in the U.S. included such schools as Carnegie Mellon University, Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati, University of Michigan, Penn State University and Syracuse University.
Onstage blog’s list had many of the same institutions. Playbill presented recognitions for the number of its alums appearing in Broadway shows in the 2017-2018 season.
All these noteworthy sources also had Baldwin Wallace University on their lists. In addition, College Magazine ranked Baldwin Wallace's Music Theatre program second in the nation in a review of the "Top 10 Colleges for Musical Theatre Majors."
Most of those on the “best” lists are large institutions. Baldwin Wallace, on the other hand, is a school of about 3,500 located in Berea, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
The BWU Musical Theatre Program, headed by Victoria Bussert, is a very selective program. Students are chosen from a process in which Bussert “personally auditions over 700 students each year -- in person, not video auditions. Those auditions resulted this year in a class of 22 from around the country -- Alaska to California to Texas to New York to Maine!”
The program is noted for its meticulous preparation of students for a life in professional theatre. For example, “Each audition and rehearsal is run with AEA [Actors Equity Association] rules to prepare students for the industry standard. The school also offers a master class series that allows students to be seen by 10 different professionals (agents, managers, and casting directors) offering critiques and advice at the beginning their sophomore year.”
The system obviously works. A list of BWU alumni presently (May, 2018) appearing on the Great White Way include Kate Rockwell (Mean Girls --Drama Desk Nomination), Corey Mach & Kyle Post (Kinky Boots), Cassie Okenka (School of Rock), Caitlin Houlahan and Keri Fuller (Waitress), Steel Burkhart (Aladdin), John Kramer (Book of Mormon) Jai’Len Josey (SpongeBob the Musical) and Zach Adkins (Anastasia). In addition, six more are in national or international touring companies. Ryan Garrett, the conductor of Kinky Boots, is a BWU grad.
Then there are those trodding the boards in professional regional productions such as Cory Mach, Keri Rene Fuller and Alex Syiek who recently appeared in Great Lakes Theater’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Annalise Griswold is presently in Beehive at GLT and Shayla Brielle, who is in Mamma Mia at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, will be appearing in the show this fall at GLT.
To cap off their undergraduate experience, each of the Musical Theatre’s program’s enrollees spends two days doing showcases at New World Stages, with the goal of getting representation and having the spotlight placed on them for the Great White Way’s professional community. In addition, this year they each performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below along with BWU alumni- Corey Mach, Caitlin Houlahan and Keri Fuller.
Bussert is actively aided in preparing the students for their showcases by Greg Daniels, the dance program coordinator and Matthew Webb, musical accompanist.
According to Bussert, “We had the largest industry turnout in our 21-year history of doing showcases.” The results of the presentations: “the 15 students had more than 250 requests [for representation and tryouts].” “Everyone has an agent.”
Bussert added, “[Mentor high school grad] Jason Goldston, had a tryout for SpongeBob The Musical and MacKenzie Wright had a tryout for Wicked. Alec Irion has had a meeting with Warner Brothers.” “Matthew Harris, Shayla Brielle, Tré Frazier, Olivia Kaufman and Noah Mattocks all had auditions for Hamilton. Others had tryouts for Book of Mormon, Miss Saigon, Aladdin, Once On This Island and Dear Evan Hansen.”
Besides Broadway, BW musical theatre students are, or have appeared on the stages of “Lyric Opera Chicago, Kennedy Center, La Jolla Playhouse, Goodspeed Opera, ART, Fulton Opera House, Arena Stage, Firebrand Theatre, Northern Stage, Indiana Rep, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival...and many more including theatre in London and Australia.”
Students who, for whatever reason didn’t go or stay in New York as performers, have gone on to be, among other things, “writers, directors, producers, composers, cruise performers, personal trainers, teachers, coaches, puppeteers, photographers, marketing directors, film/television/video performers, models, and make-up artists.” Bussert also stated, “We have a multiple Emmy award-winning TV Producer, Sainty Nelson, along with grads who are in casting, publicity, arts management, music directing, stage management, design and work as agents.”
Several class of 2018 students have shared their BW and showcase experiences.
He found the feedback in New York “pleasing and surprising” since he doesn’t perceive himself physically or talent-wise to “fit the usual role of theatre guy.”
Alec thinks the BWU Musical Theatre program got him ready for his future as it was “so hard,” “kept us going constantly,” “taught us what the business is,” “didn’t spoon feed us.” Now, he is “excited to go forward.”
Dan Hoy signed with CSED, a large agency with offices in Los Angeles and New York. He chose them because “the agency is remarkably reputable and seemed excited to work with me. They were already strategizing and planning when I walked in for my interview and showed real interest in my future and career goals.” Dan had four tryouts as a result of the showcases.
He stated, “Baldwin Wallace has allowed me to grow immensely as both a performer and a professional. I feel they have prepared me for a future in the industry.”
Other talented members of the BW music theatre class of 2018 not mentioned in this article are Meghan Cordier, Jon Loya, Michelle Pauker, Holly Moss and Chandler Smith.
As a Cleveland based theatre reviewer, I was invited to sit in on the Class of 2018’s preparation for their showcase and then accompany the fifteen seniors to New York to observe their showcases and share their pursuit of agents, managers and, in some cases tryouts for present and future Broadway shows. It was a compelling and educational experience.
Heads up: Watch for the names of the Musical Theatre BWU Class of 2018 on Broadway stages, local venues, television and film productions. This is a special group of talented and well-trained young people, who are dedicated and ready to make their marks on the world of entertainment.