13 College Undergraduate Musical Theater Programs You Should Know

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Photo Source: Jasmin Garcia-Verdin

For aspiring musical theater actors, college is often the first step. If you’re hoping to be cast in a Broadway show someday, it’s important that you pick an undergraduate program tailored to your career goals. Here’s our list of some of the best BFA musical theater programs in the U.S.

What kind of musical theater degree should I get?

To start, decide whether you’re interested in earning a BFA or BA. Bachelor of fine arts programs are largely focused on the performing arts—about 75% of your coursework will relate to musical theater, leaving just 25% for studying other subjects. 

“The BFA path is really only appropriate for someone who is 110% sure they want to major in that performing arts discipline,” says Susan Taub, an independent college counselor who specializes in advising applicants interested in performing arts programs.

With a bachelor of arts track, on the other hand, only about a third of your courses will be tied to your musical theater major, making it possible to double major in a subject outside of the performing arts, if that’s something you’re interested in. According to Taub, the most important thing to remember is that “both paths can lead to success in life and in a career in the arts.” 

Once you’ve decided which type of degree you want to apply for, here are a few things to consider when researching potential programs:

  • Audition requirements
  • Which acting techniques are taught
  • How many student-run productions you can participate in
  • Whether or not there’s a showcase before graduation 
  • How many graduates are working in the industry 
  • Alumni networking opportunities

The top college musical theater programs in the U.S.

Baldwin Wallace University (Berea, OH)

Skill-building: The only bachelor of music track on this list, Baldwin Wallace’s conservatory program trains students in classical acting techniques like Stanislavsky, Meisner, and Alexander. It also focuses on diction and dialect, heightened verse, acting for the camera, and contemporary scene study. In the dance realm, students learn classical ballet, jazz, tap, modern, and hip-hop. As far as vocal techniques, they study classical, golden age musical theater, and pop and rock styles, as well as audition training. Students can also create one-on-one specialized courses with their professors.

Performance opportunities: Baldwin Wallace produces three musicals per year. Students in any class can audition for musicals, plays, and operas on campus. The school also partners with Great Lakes Theater, and since all seniors appear or understudy in their fall musical, every student graduates with either an Equity card or a place in the Equity Membership Candidate Program.

Post-college prep: Each audition and rehearsal is run with Equity rules to prepare students for industry standards. Baldwin Wallace also offers a master-class series that, starting sophomore year, allows students to be seen by 10 different professionals (agents, managers, or casting directors) who offer critiques and advice. Seniors perform in two days of showcases at New World Stages.

Degree offered: Bachelor of Music

Boston Conservatory at Berklee (Boston, MA) 

Skill-building: The faculty at Boston Conservatory is composed of Broadway veterans and other theater professionals; along with guest artists, they train students in acting, dance, and voice. The first two years consist of foundational courses, including musical theater repertoire and ear training. Junior and senior year are dedicated to refining these abilities, developing leadership skills, and honing audition techniques.

Performance opportunities: Every year, Boston Conservatory puts on five main-stage productions and six faculty-directed studio shows. Additionally, the school mounts 12–14 studio shows directed by seniors, a freshman revue, a drag show, two experimental performance lab productions, a summer touring production, cabaret outreach shows, and dozens of musical theater and voice studio recitals. There’s also a miniseason of plays by the student-run Earthstone Theatre Company, as well as opportunities to work with repertory and midsize theater companies in Boston.

Post-college prep: The school emphasizes the importance of building a professional network from day one. It also puts on a “webcase”—an online version of a traditional in-person showcase—to maximize students’ exposure to casting agents and other industry professionals.

Degree offered: BFA

Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) 

Skill-building: Carnegie Mellon’s Acting/Music Theater conservatory program trains students in acting, voice and speech, and movement, as well as advanced singing, dance techniques, and musical theater styles and skills. The school also offers a senior study abroad program in partnership with international conservatories including the Moscow Art Theatre and the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.

Performance opportunities: Students perform for the public in their junior and senior years. Carnegie Mellon also partners with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the American Society of Composers and Publishers to give students the chance to present new musical work in company with industry professionals.

Post-college prep: In the senior showcase, graduating students perform monologues and songs for casting directors, agents, and managers. Showcases are held in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. 

Degree offered: BFA

Elon University (Elon, NC)

Skill-building: Students at Elon are required to complete courses in a wide array of disciplines, including contemporary vocal techniques; music theory; musical theater literature; scene study; acting for the camera; ballet, jazz, modern, Fosse, and tap dance; and commedia dell’arte. They can choose how far they want to progress in different disciplines based on their level of interest. The school offers master classes with visiting artists, plus private voice lessons across all four years of the program.

Performance opportunities: Each season includes two main-stage musical theater productions, one black box show, two musical revues, and three plays. Beyond the official university season, students can audition for workshops with visiting performers, additional musical revues, dance performances, student-run shows, and an annual senior thesis production.

Post-college prep: Seniors take a two-semester seminar that focuses on the “business of show,” followed by a three- to six-week series in which students are seen on campus by agents and CDs.

Degree offered: BFA

Emerson College (Boston, MA)

Skill-building: According to the school’s website, participants in Emerson’s undergraduate musical theater major “hone their acting, singing, and dancing to become onstage storytellers and rising stars.” This includes opportunities to rehearse, practice scenes, and do performance work in the school’s five professional-grade theater spaces. 

Performance opportunities: Emerson Stage, the production arm of the Department of Performing Arts, puts on nine performances per season, offering “more than 120 opportunities for actors, 100 positions for design staff, 70 for production staff, and another 70 for theater management staff, and 30 artistic staff—all reserved exclusively for performing arts students.” 

Post-college prep: The program holds two showcases annually—one in Boston during the spring and another in New York City in autumn—in which graduating seniors “have the chance to perform in front of industry reps, directors, and noted Emerson alumni.”

Degree offered: BFA

Ithaca College (Ithaca, NY)

Skill-building: Ithaca’s musical theater program prides itself on training the “whole performer.” Students dive right into 20-plus hours of training per week in dance, acting, and music, including private voice lessons; scene study; voice and movement for the stage; audition techniques; and jazz, ballet, and modern dance. During regular faculty evaluations, professors point out students’ strengths as well as the areas they need to work on. You’ll also have the opportunity to spend a semester abroad studying British drama at the school’s London Center.

Performance opportunities: Ithaca mounts six main-stage shows per season, consisting of two musicals, two plays, an opera, and a dance concert. There are also four to six studio shows per year, as well as audition opportunities for student-run productions and local professional theaters.

Post-college prep: Workshops and master classes in areas like audition technique are offered to seniors to help them transition into the industry. They can also sign up for a one-week field studies trip to NYC to network with working alumni. There, students take master classes and audition workshops, culminating in a senior showcase the following week.

Degree offered: BFA

Marymount Manhattan College (New York, NY)

Skill-building: MMC prides itself on the flexibility of its musical theater program, which combines “training in acting, singing, and dancing with a robust liberal arts education.” Students get practical tutoring right away; freshman year comprises more than 12 hours of weekly studio instruction. Over the course of the program, you’ll learn acting essentials, including script analysis, rehearsal techniques, and scene study, as well as taking private voice lessons and dance classes five days a week. 

MMC offers unique electives like directing musicals, cabaret performance, pop/rock performance, acting for the camera, performing Shakespeare, songwriting in the studio, and a course called Actor, Role, Celebrity: The Haunted Body on the Musical Stage. 

Performance opportunities: Multiple musicals are produced on campus every season, as well as Studio Workshop productions at off-site venues in New York like the National Dance Institute and the York Theatre Company. 

Post-college prep: In the program’s advanced classes, pupils create a “unique audition portfolio with material that expresses students’ individual personalities and interests within the business.” You’ll then apply that portfolio to your audition skills.

Degree offered: BFA

New York University (New York, NY)

Skill-building: NYU Tisch’s New Studio on Broadway draws upon “the repertoire of the American musical, contemporary American plays, and the traditional classical canon to hone the actor’s instrument in all aspects of all three disciplines essential to be an actor in the musical theater: acting, singing, and dancing.” 

Foundational courses include scene study, acting exercises, ballet basics, and music theory. More advanced classes focus on the teachings of Anton Chekhov, the Greeks, and Molière, as well as analysis of the musicals of Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim. 

Performance opportunities: In addition to scene-based classwork, students participate in a full-length performance project in their third and fourth years. These are composed of “typically more challenging musical and dramatic material, and may include world-premiere productions of collaborative work written by master’s students in the Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing [program].” 

The degree culminates in the Vocal Book Preparation course, which focuses on “selecting and refining a range of distinctly chosen and specialized material in a wide range of genres that may best demonstrate the student’s personal affinity and musical taste, individual distinctiveness as an actor, vocal range, and music that they genuinely love to sing.”

Post-college prep: The program offers a class on “acting in the digital age,” which covers establishing your online presence and navigating modern technology. The final year also includes a class taught by Brian O’Neil, the author of “Acting as a Business.”

Degree offered: BFA

Pace University (New York, NY)

Skill-building: Pace’s musical theater program employs faculty members currently working in the industry, as well as artists-in-residence like Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori. Courses include acting for musical theater, acting for television and film, scene study, musical theater history and repertoire, and script and score analysis. Students take one-on-one voice lessons and learn the fundamentals of ballet, jazz, tap, and theatrical dance.

Performance opportunities: The school produces four main-stage musicals per year, including Pace New Musicals, a selection of new works mounted over winter break. Freshmen perform in a live show called Hatched, and seniors appear in a showcase before graduating. Pace’s New York City locale is a vital part of the student experience, as the school tries to accommodate pupils who land gigs both on stage and screen.

Post-college prep: The senior showcase is well-publicized by the college, and students take a class on the business of acting, which is taught by top NYC casting directors.

Degree offered: BFA

Penn State University (State College, PA)

Skill-building: Students at Penn State are trained in acting, voice, and dance. They also take a course called musical theater styles, which focuses on the history of Broadway choreographers from 1930 to the present. The program invites guest artists to teach on campus through its master-class series, and students take an annual trip to New York City.

Performance opportunities: The department produces three musicals per year. There are also audition opportunities for plays, operas, cabarets, shows, and dance concerts. The school hosts a new-works initiative in which a writing team visits each junior class to interview students and pen a musical inspired by these conversations. The following fall, the team returns with a draft and develops the show with the students, who are then in their senior year.

Post-college prep: The program helps students address practical concerns like creating a website, getting headshots, and writing a résumé. It offers a “Business of the Business” course that equips students with information on casting directors, agents, and budgeting. Perks for seniors include the chance to perform in a three-camera video shoot for use on their websites and social-media pages, an industry showcase in NYC, and a financial endowment for second-semester seniors to figure out the next steps in their careers.

Degree offered: BFA

Syracuse University (Syracuse, NY)

Skill-building: Syracuse’s conservatory program features a curriculum in acting, singing, and dancing in partnership with professional theater company Syracuse Stage, which allows students to network with working performers. The school offers musical theater majors the opportunity to join the Tepper Semester program in New York City (named for its founder, Tony-winning producer Arielle Tepper Madover, an alum of the program). Students can take master classes with performers, agents, casting directors, and directors to gain insights on transitioning into the industry.

Performance opportunities: Drama students can audition to perform in an annual production at Syracuse Stage as part of the ensemble or featured ensemble—and, occasionally, in leading roles. Those who are cast earn points toward Equity candidacy. The school mounts a five-production main-stage season (including two musicals), as well as a few smaller studio projects per year.

Post-college prep: The program offers audition-technique classes and mock auditions with guest artists, as well as networking opportunities with working theater professionals.

Degree offered: BFA

University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (Cincinnati, OH)

Skill-building: CCM’s musical theater program is the oldest in the United States. “At CCM we are in the business of turning out triple threats: talented young people who can sing, dance and act with equal accomplishment,” the program’s site explains. Vocal training incorporates private technique classes and musical theater vocal coaching. Graduating students are well-versed in the methods of Michael Chekhov and Sanford Meisner; dance training includes the genres of ballet, jazz, tap, and modern, as well as Pilates.

Performance opportunities: The school stages multiple musicals every season, plus three workshop productions in the school’s black box theater. Each season features works from the golden age of musical theater, as well as contemporary productions and rock operas; students from any year are invited to audition.

Post-college prep: CCM’s freshman showcase is a chance for incoming first-years to debut their talents; the senior showcase allows graduating students to perform for agents and casting directors in New York and Cincinnati. There are also regular master classes taught by Broadway professionals, and cast members of national touring companies visit campus to speak about their experience in the business.

Degree offered: BFA

University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)

Skill-building: According to musical theater performance professor Vincent Cardinal, students at UM are expected to be “competitive at the highest level of profession” in two of the three musical theater disciplines. They’re trained extensively in music theory and the history of the craft, and students receive one-on-one voice lessons.

Performance opportunities: The university mounts four main-stage productions per year, plus performances with student-run theater organizations like the Rude Mechanicals, MOSAIC, Basement Arts, and MUSKET. There are also opportunities to perform with community organizations like the Encore Musical Theatre Company and Ann Arbor in Concert. Summer stock companies hold on-campus auditions from January to March.

Post-college prep: Casting directors, agents, directors, and professional alumni offer guidance to students as they prepare for the annual senior showcase.

Degree offered: BFA

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