From Michigan to Broadway
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—University of Michigan Musical Theater graduates and former students are waiting in the wings all over Broadway.
These hopefuls, currently appearing in top shows, have been nominated for coveted 2004 Tony Awards acknowledging them as the best in their field. The awards will be presented June 6.
"I always thought when it happened I'd be screaming and jumping up and down," said first-time nominee, Hunter Foster ('92), up for best actor in a musical for his portrayal of Seymour in "Little Shop of Horrors." "Instead, I thought if I get too excited, maybe they will take it away, so I was subdued."
Other nominees who attended U-M are Matthew Rego, Jeff Marx, Jack O'Brien, Margo Martindale and Jeffrey Seller.
Foster got his first real look at the world of Broadway during his undergraduate years in U-M's Department of Musical Theatre in the School of Music. "We have an extensive knowledge of the business," he said. U-M students learn how to take apart and analyze classic and contemporary works, audition techniques, absorb material quickly, look at roles creatively, and market themselves to agents and casting directors.
"Our program is based on an entire curriculum, which tries to emphasize all aspects of performing," said Brent Wagner, chair of the musical theatre department. "There are countless issues the general public wouldn't even be aware of."
For Rego ('92), these issues played a factor in shifting his attention from acting to producing. In 1997 he formed the production company the Araca Group with his brother Michael and friend Hank Unger. Since then, the Araca Group has been responsible for three nominated productions in three years, including this year's "Wicked," up for best musical and nine other nominations. "[Wagner's] dedication to studying theater as both artistry and a business hugely influenced my understanding of theater as an industry and not just a place to express my creativity," Rego said.
The nominations are evidence that the department is doing a good job preparing graduates for the future, Wagner says. "They have been able to use their training and continue to have an impact on the profession," he said. "It's not an easy career path to follow, and the fact that these folks have followed it to elevated levels of success speaks highly of their skill and determination."
As for the night of the awards show, Rego says the anticipation doesn't get any easier after the first nomination. "When we were nominated for 'Urinetown,' everyone thought of us as the little show that could, and we were on pins and needles every moment," he said. "This year with 'Wicked,' many people have labeled us the front runner, but we are still extremely nervous and excited at the same time." ("Wicked" has been nominated for 10 Tony awards.)
It is the underdog status that has helped Foster stay calm throughout his first experience as a nominee. His main concern is not about whether or not he will win, but having fun and enjoying the moment. "There is no pressure when Hugh Jackman is in your category," he said. "It's pretty exciting just to be mentioned in the same breath as him. You dream you'll be there, but you never really think they will come true."
Marx ('93) is another first -time nominee. He is up for best musical score for "Avenue Q." O'Brien ('61) and Seller ('86) are no strangers to the Tonys. O'Brien is nominated for best director this year for his work with "Henry IV." He received a nomination in 2001 for best director for "The Full Monty" and won the Tony in that category in 1996 for "Hairspray." Seller is the producer of "Avenue Q," up for best musical along side "Wicked." Seller received a Tony in 1996 for his production of "Rent." Martindale is vying for the award for best featured actress in a play for her performance as Big Mama in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," a role she played at U-M as a 20-year-old student.
At the Drama Desk Awards presented May 16, "Wicked" won outstanding musical, an award received by the producers—Rego/the Araca Group. O'Brien won as the outstanding director of a play ("Henry IV").