Not long ago, a guest presenter in a large theater class I taught polled students on their theater experiences. He asked students to raise their hands if they had seen a particular play or musical. Nearly every hand was raised for “The Lion King.” Only a smattering went up for the previous year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner. The broad appeal of musicals was apparent.
The economics of professional theater is enabled by two types of productions: Shakespeare and American musicals. It is, therefore, not surprising that an outsize number of aspiring theater artists harbor a desire to study musical theater. If you’re one of them, do you know what to look for when considering a musical theater program? Here’s what to pay attention to.
To BFA or not to BFA?
Too often, prospective students begin filtering their options by sorting out BFA programs from B.A. programs. This is a mistake; a BFA degree does not ensure quality and it certainly does not guarantee professional success.
The reality is that there are excellent musical theater programs that offer B.A. degrees (and even B.S. degrees) and, of course, there are plenty that bestow the BFA. Do not let the degree be a limiting factor.
What part of the program is emphasized?
Triple threats. That’s the phrase that most commonly explains musical theater performers for their ability to act, dance, and sing. Most musical theater programs do not provide equal emphasis on the importance of these three areas. Some emphasize singing. Others acting. Some dance.
In my experience, a strong acting program tends to produce the best musical theater artists. More than technical proficiency alone, it’s the ability to connect with a character and internalize their experience that often makes a difference in a career: larger roles, enhanced career longevity, and an ability to succeed on both stage and screen.
Will you have a social life?
The best actors do not emerge from monasteries. Pick a college or university where you will be exposed to a variety of perspectives and have a chance to experience and witness the play of life. A college education should be an immersion in politics, arts, humanities, and the social sciences with the aim of better understanding the interconnectedness of the world. Non-theater classes and events (social activism and lectures on campus, etc.) beyond the classroom will inform your artistic development as much as the required coursework within your major.
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