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July 21, 2004

Musical theater workshop finds home at U-M

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The rehearsal room in the Power Center is filled with random taps, claps and leg-lifts until the choreographer cues the students to start the routine.

"One and a two and a three and a four," Brian Spitulnik says. The song "Dirt" from "Sweet Smell of Success" blasts from the speakers.

Twenty-four high school dancers move in sync as they rehearse a routine they learned only the day before. In less than two weeks, on July 31, they will perform this number before an audience as part of an original revue.

That is the goal of this summer workshop in musical theater: to start with a concept, and turn it into a well-rounded show through eight-hour-a-day rehearsals.

"It's very intensive for the students," says Brent Wagner, chair of the Department of Musical Theatre at the University of Michigan and director of the musical theater summer workshop.

From 1986 through last summer, students experienced this rigorous instruction at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northern Michigan as part of U-M's All-State program. For the first time this year, the musical theater workshop is on U-M's Ann Arbor campus.

Wagner decided on the move in order to make the program national instead of drawing almost entirely from a pool of Michigan high school students. He also wanted to give students exposure to U-M, with its highly respected musical theater program and performance facilities, such as the Power Center and the Mendelssohn Theatre.

Wagner maintains a high regard for the All-State performing arts program as well as for Interlochen itself, which has had a relationship with U-M since 1942. But he hopes to keep the musical theater workshop at U-M in the future, and says some of the other workshops may come to campus as well. Other All-State programs include band, choir, flute, orchestra, saxophone and piano. A workshop in music technology also is held on the U-M campus.

"Now that we're here, we're looking for a new name. It can be a national program," he says. "It can become anything we want it to be."

Brody Hessin, a student from Littleton, Colo., participated in the program at Interlochen last year. He returned to the workshop this year and is excited about the opportunities afforded by staying on campus for two weeks.

"I get to feel what the college life is like," Hessin says. "You really get the experience of how demanding it is, what a career in musical theater would be like."

Angela Johnson, who will be a senior at Huron High School in Ann Arbor, also is in her second year. She has high praise for Wagner and other faculty members; U-M students such as Spitulnik, the choreographer; and others who work with the students, including musical director Grant Wenaus, a former U-M faculty member who now is on the faculty of New York University.

"They're just such great people to work with. They give a lot to us," she says.

Several current faculty members, Wagner says, are teaching master classes during the two-week workshop. Following the eight-hour rehearsals, events in the evening include a tour of Central Campus and a viewing of "From Here to Eternity" at the Michigan Theater, followed by a discussion about the historic theater with Executive Director Russ Collins.

The students will perform their revue at 2 p.m. July 31 at the Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 North University Ave. The theme for the performance is politics and social issues; a previously selected name, "The Country's in the Best of Hands," has evolved into a new title: "Louder Than Words," the title of a Jonathan Larson song used in the production. Admission is free.

For more on the theater department, visit:

For more on Wagner, visit:


Contact: Susan Grant Robinson
Phone: (734) 764-2119