School is back in session, which for some students means it’s time to think about college. Navigating a long list of acting, theater, and musical theater programs is probably your first stop after deciding that’s what you want to do with your life. Next comes audition prep. Every school does it differently and is looking for something slightly different. Talent, of course, is important, but each institution prides itself on an individualized education experience. With one of the top musical theater programs in the country, the University of Michigan is not just looking for the most talented high school seniors, but for intellectual curiosity and a cultural fit with the school itself. Vincent Cardinal, chair of U-M’s musical theater department, speaks here with Backstage about what to expect, from application to audition to acceptance.
What is your position at University of Michigan?
I am the chair of the musical theater department, which means I oversee the curriculum, productions, selection of the classes, and the experience the kids have while they’re here.
What is your role during auditions for a new class?
I’m part of the entire audition process and I make the final decision.
What is the musical theater audition process at Michigan?
We’re trying to find young professionals who are a good batch for the training our program gives, to help them develop that talent over a four-year period. That process means we look at more than 1,400 prescreens. We then select a group of those applicants to do a live audition. In the live audition, we’re assessing where they are in their development as artists, and the match between their strengths and needs and our strengths and needs as an educational institution. Then we narrow it down to a very small group and we make the offer and hopefully help guide them in the selections they make. So, if a student gets into five different programs, we can have the conversation not about why you should come to Michigan, but what programs offer what [and] how they match what’s in your needs.
What is involved in a live audition?
Prospective students do two songs, one golden age and one contemporary. They bring in a selection of two monologues and we select one for them to do. Then they participate in an hourlong dance call. They’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate where they are in this point in their development. We are really interested in the individual as they are today, not “Hit the highest note you can because that will impress us.”
What are you looking for in potential students besides talent?
We are in the top public universities in the country. We are looking for intellectual curiosity that allows a student to take full advantage of this incredible institution. We’re a very flexible program in terms of curriculum, so that intellectual and artistic curiosity really serves the student here in helping to find their journey through their four years. We are also looking for musicality. The University of Michigan started as a school of music, so we are looking for people who have musical chops. We have an excellent dance program and we have a really strong acting program, so some students may find their strength in one of those three areas, and then they need focus in the other two areas. We really do look at individuals and try to shape a program to develop them as individual artists.
What can help set someone apart? What stands out to you and makes someone memorable?
We remember the people who are good communicators and present themselves as they are.
When it comes to preparation for the audition, is there something that you expect people to come in having done, aside from the material they have prepared?
We expect that there is a range of training and skills, but we also expect that the work they bring in will reflect the best of that training at whatever level it is.
Do you have suggested type of background or training you want people to come in with?
I just think that they [need to have] done the work that they know at that point. I don’t necessarily think you need, for instance, a college audition coach. That’s lovely if you can get it, but it’s certainly not a requirement, and I wouldn’t say it’s what gets a student in or not. A lot of high school and junior high public school theater and English teachers have done a great job prepping students. If a student has done the work, they show themselves to be at a certain point in their development. We had a student not too long ago who had never done a dance class but had watched YouTube videos of dancers and had taught themselves what they knew about dance through YouTube. I mean, that’s amazing! They were dancing at the top of the game they had available to them for dancing in their bedroom to YouTube videos. And that’s awesome.
What elements factor into your decision making?
Intellectual curiosity is big. The baseline talent that they have is important. Their kindness and ability to be a part of a community of artists that support each other. Their enthusiasm for the arts program. I think those are the key elements. Kindness goes a long, long way in my world.
Along with you, who makes the final decisions?
The entire faculty participates in the conversation about who our top candidates are. We also check in with admissions in terms of academic admissibility, and then we sort of sort out all of that, and then at the end of the day, I’m the one who signs off on the class we want.
Who is typically in the room during an in-person audition?
Usually, there is somebody from our music department playing the piano, so the person at the piano is a professor. Then there are usually two other people in the room from the faculty.
What advice would you have for a prospective Michigan musical theater student?
Relax and let it be a meeting of people who are interested in the arts. Be interested in your future, as opposed to [making it about] impressing or somehow “winning the game” of getting in. I believe there are a lot of really great musical theater programs in the country, and amazing musical theater teachers, so I really do trust that for the most part students end up in really great programs and get really terrific training. The audition process is more about sorting out where people fit.
What do you think surprises people about the admission process?
That it’s not a competition; that it’s a whole lot of people who care a whole lot about the student ending up in the right place for them.
For you, what are some of the challenges of going through this process every year?
I know that in the prescreen process, if a student doesn’t get through, they tell themselves the story that they weren’t even good enough to get an audition. And that’s heartbreaking because that’s not what we assess. There’s nothing in this process that assesses a person’s worth as an artist. I hate that we inadvertently send messages to young people that they don’t measure up, because we’re really looking at educational potential, not worth as an artist or human being. There’s so much disappointment and heartbreak around this for young people who are sensitive and have such incredible potential and promise. So, I would like them to know that this is not a process that measures their worth in any way.
How big are the classes usually?
We accept 20–22 out of over 1,400 applicants. In the classroom, we split that 20 into two, so class sizes are between 10 and 11.
How many people do you select out of the 1,400 to come in for auditions?
It varies from year to year. About 600–650, depending on the year and how many slots we have available.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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