Making it to Broadway, Part 3

As Broadway hopefuls begin to investigate college theatre programs, what do they look for? To what kinds of schools do professional musical theatre performers go? What do they study and what is the most important thing they learn? I asked our survey group those very questions – so read on! If you’re just joining us, this series of articles is based on a survey of 100 actors currently working in Broadway Musicals. The survey was a series of questions regarding Educational and Environmental Advantages for Actors working on Broadway and was taken throughout the summer of 2014. Check out the previous articles to read about background, early training, first professional jobs and joining the union.

For this blog entry – I decided to share specific answers grouped by SHOW. This reveals trends in education and training style, but also presumed skill sets and possibly even casting aesthetics. To be fair – the survey did not cover every actor in every Broadway Musical or favor any one group, but serves as a random sampling. Some shows had 10 or more responders – and some had very few. I think it all evens out in the end.

Types of Colleges the Actors attended – By Show

(The number of responders is listed next to Show title)

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Broadway professionals may find that these results highlight perceived casting preferences for the type of actor that graduates (or doesn’t) from a certain kind of educational institution. For the shows with a large number of responders – can we draw conclusions from these percentages? Can we discover what skills or abilities these actors might bring into the audition room based on what kind of school they attended? Seven out of twelve responders in Phantom of the Opera attended a Large University, while 3 attended a Conservatory and just one from Liberal Arts or Certificate programs – and everyone graduated (no drop outs in the Phantom group!). Should we take into consideration the fact that Phantom has been running for over two decades – and the cast isn’t as young as some in the other shows? Certainly, BFA degrees in Musical Theatre are commonplace now – but 20 years ago there were many less colleges offering that degree. In contrast, the responders from the cast of the Les Miserables revival were more likely to graduate from a Liberal Arts Institution, followed by a Large University – then Conservatory. The third large sampling came from the now-closed Bullets Over Broadway. Those actors were more evenly spread between Large Universities (3), Conservatories (2), Liberal Arts Institutions (4), Certificate programs (1) and even those that didn’t attend college (2).

What is it about Cinderella, Jersey Boys, Matilda and Beautiful that makes those shows have a majority of Conservatory graduates? (Again – not every cast member participated in the survey, but those are the numbers we have.) The entire group was represented a bit differently – with 33% graduating from Large Universities and another 33% from Conservatories, 26% attended Liberal Arts Institutions, 2% attended a Certificate program – and 6% didn’t attend college at all.


What type of degree is better? I’m not sure anyone will ever prove one degree is preferred by actors, directors or casting agents, but the BFA degree is by far the most common degree among the Broadway actors we surveyed.

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The BFA Graduates are the majority in almost every show group. The exceptions are some of the smaller samples (Matilda, Gentlemen’s Guide…) and notably – Phantom of the Opera did not have a majority of BFA graduates, nor did Cabaret (which might speak to the special casting needs of finding Actor/Musicians for the Roundabout Theatre version of that show). In conservatory training, one is rarely able to study “something else” outside of your curriculum (like a musical instrument). So, unless you played in elementary or High School – you aren’t picking up an instrument for the first time in college while working towards a rigorous BFA. Frankly, if you’ve never played an instrument before college – it is unlikely that you will attain professional level skills in four years anyway.


The third chart for this portion of the study reveals college major by show.

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You may notice information that prompts some broad generalizations about certain shows. Beautiful, Book of Mormon, Cinderella, Jersey Boys, and Matilda have a majority of responders that studied Musical Theatre – with Bridges of Madison County, Kinky Boots, Pippin and Wicked showing at least 50% of respondents also majoring in Musical Theatre.

You may notice that Bullets Over Broadway has slightly more variety – with another large portion of the group majoring in Acting as does Mamma Mia, Kinky Boots, and Les Miserables. Similarly – Cabaret and Phantom have fairly large groups on Vocal Performance/Music majors, which makes sense.

The Most Important Thing You Learned in College

Well, a subtitle like that sounds ominous, right? But when creating this survey – I thought it would be useful to discover the ONE lesson that theatre graduates valued most. A few declined to answer – but here’s the list:

  • To find my individuality
  • I learned a solid acting technique, how to self-assess, to continue growth
  • Hard work will pay off and to have patience!
  • Trust yourself.
  • Time management
  • To be a good person first and a good artist second.
  • To make each character I portray truthful and honest.
  • Continue to study and be open to opportunities.
  • Technique/discipline
  • Diverse styles of acting, methods and training.
  • Be yourself.
  • Always say yes. Be yourself. Always be kind.
  • I didn’t really care for my Program.
  • Perseverance and attention to detail
  • Preparation
  • That I am enough.
  • What my process is, and how to find my process. Learning the many different ways to come about approaching a character- it could be physical first, or vocal, or through the text, the many different ways to find a fully realized person onstage. I feel like I have so many tools to choose in my tool box.
  • The business of show business. (Contracts, unions, etc.)
  • Fend for yourself.
  • My type
  • The business side of being an actor.
  • Tap and voice and a sense of professionalism
  • Well-rounded training in all three areas.
  • I can not pick one thing that was the most important. Maybe the development of a process to approach acting and singing work.
  • Show up and do your job well.
  • How to survive when you were not working!
  • Work harder than you think you have to.
  • How to act a song
  • I majored in Music (general BA degree, primarily history and theory) and had access to vocal instruction but otherwise had no professional training before graduating from college.
  • Appreciation for other aspects of the business (stage craft, costume design & wardrobe, etc). I actually had to ‘unlearn’ quite a bit once I transitioned to the professional world.
  • I tried to be part of the Musical Theatre program for years, and I was never accepted. So the most important thing I learned was that rejection is a huge part of the business.
  • Being a balanced performer. Good reputation
  • Be on time! Don’t burn bridges.
  • I am not certain that this question, or the other questions pertaining to formal, academic training, necessarily apply to my journey. I graduated high school with my Equity card and began working in stock and semi-professional theatre for the years immediately following my graduation from HS…within several years I began working regionally, which catapulted me to a Broadway debut, and (very fortunately) a fairly consistent run on and off-Broadway, in National tours and in some fantastic regional theatres. It wasn’t until recently (2010) that I decided to achieve my BA through online education, in hopes that it – along with my professional work history – would help me to find a suitable MFA program in either Directing or Pedagogy.
  • Only attended college 1 year — but learned the most in my “Musical Theater Lab” class about preparing and acting songs for auditions.
  • That I should have something I want to say – and how to make my own work.
  • It can’t be only one thing. (Maybe THAT’S the most important thing.)
  • Acting/text analysis
  • How to incorporate acting into singing a song and acting while dancing all while having strong technique and tools in each individual aspect of performing (dancing, singing, acting)
  • Acting the song over solely relying on voice
  • I only stayed one year, and no acting classes were available to Freshmen.
  • How to interact well with others…not a class, but true!
  • Acting Technique
  • Love what you do
  • Keep working!
  • How to be a better musician.
  • I learned so much there but most importantly I learned an incredible worth ethic and that this business is not always about who deserves it the most- I learned to be okay with rejection at a young age and that has really helped me.
  • I truly understand my voice and have excellent singing technique
  • How to analyze a script.
  • Nothing
  • Professional Connections are what make or break you in show business.
  • Hard work
  • Work hard.
  • Know your home base, but try/do everything.
  • I didn’t have the best of programs and didn’t enjoy my time there set all. But I did learn how to belt properly.
  • Never give up and how to maintain a high level of career success.
  • To be myself instead of trying to be like anyone else. to maximize on what makes me special as an individual. There’s only one of me and that’s the most appealing thing about me.
  • Business of the business
  • I studied instrumental music…
  • Be who YOU are!
  • Music Theory, Music History, Musicianship
  • Really to be a nice person
  • To take control of my training and my career. I am the one who knows what I need to succeed.
  • How to sing
  • Audition techniques
  • I am enough.
  • How to conduct myself in an audition and how to train on my own. The value of a strong work ethic.
  • Had a horrible experience. I learned that I was not built for school.
  • History of the art form along with simply discovering my identity as a performer.
  • Discipline
  • Audition book
  • Breathe!
  • In general, it’s better to be an actor first. You’re more interesting, a better performer that way, and much more likely to get the job.
  • I received a Masters Degree in opera – which didn’t prepare me for a musical theater career but it did teach me solid vocal technique.
  • I learned how to become an actor, and to stop trying to imitate what I see in theater and begin CREATING.
  • Well roundedness was the best thing I was taught through the training at my school. I did not come in with any dance experience, and through the curriculum, I came out of school with good basic training in not only singing and acting, but in dance as well.
  • That the business is cut throat and not what I had expected
  • To work hard – to perfect each performance or audition
  • Theater is a celebration of life.
  • I was taught to honestly assess the level of my skills
  • If you are not at the highest caliber of a singer, you will not be able to compete on the “Broadway level” field for Musical Theatre.
  • That it’s a business. And you have to treat it as such.
  • Diversity of acting curriculum
Composer Adam Wagner presents a Master Class with Musical Theatre Students at Columbia College Chicago

You Finished College – now what?

So let’s get to the point – professional employment. What are the details about our actors’ current jobs? How did they get the gig? When? What happened before that?

Broadway experience is a rare achievement – many people work for it, few attain it, and luck plays a huge part. Being in the right place at the right time (and the right size) is often the key. Happily, 35% of our actors are making their Broadway debut. When asked how many Broadway shows they’d been in (including this one) 21% said two, 14% said three, 13% said four, 5% said five, and 12% said six or more. It is interesting that the numbers even out (somewhat) after the first shot. Luck plays less of a factor – and reputation kicks in.

Some of you may know that Actors’ Equity Association (the professional actors’ union) offers several contracts for the road as well. These National Tours can be “Broadway National Tours” – or pay considerably less. Either way, another great gig – and they are often the road company of a current Broadway show (22% had been on the road with their current show – prior to booking the Broadway company). When asked “how many National Tours have you done?” – the responses were similar to the Broadway question above. Most actors had performed in one or two (33% and 34% respectively). Work in three national tours dropped significantly to just 11%, with 15% stating that had done four or more. 6% said one of these jobs had been a non-union tour. (This leaves roughly 20% and we can presume that they haven’t worked on a National Tour).


The audition process for a Broadway show can be long and arduous (or surprisingly short and sweet), and you might get seen several times – over several years before landing the job. 63% of our responders were members of the original cast – lucky them! This figure would explain why just over 52% were cast in their current show from the first round of auditions. But many were seen several times: 24% were cast after being seen at two different rounds of auditions; 7% were cast after the third round, 4% were seen 4 different times, Just 1% were seen five times – and a full 11% were seen at 6 or more different auditions. These findings are proof that you must stick with it. I was finally cast in my first national tour after being seen for almost every other male role in the show. It was a great gig – you just keep working towards that goal.

One other important aspect of building a career as an actor is the relationship you build with the casting directors. When they call you in – they want you to be the one the directors choose. It makes their job easier! Your job is to be prepared and on your game – every time. Do this and they will rely on you and will be happy to call you in whenever they can. Our Broadway actors were asked, “Before you booked your current show, when were you first seen by the casting office?” 11% were seen at an Equity Chorus Call. 5% were seen at an EPA – also known as an Equity Principal Audition. These auditions usually require lining up early in the day, signing up for a three-minute appointment, and auditioning for someone from the casting office for that particular show. 4% were seen at an open call – an audition where union status is not necessary and the producer (casting office) runs all aspects of the audition. 1 person was seen at an industry showcase and 4% answered “not applicable” for their situation. The majority of our actors (51%) were first seen by the casting office at an Invited Call or Agent appointment. These auditions are closed to the public – and you must have your agent get you in, or the Casting Office invites you to the audition. Possibly because they’ve cast you in something else (23% of our actors listed this as they’re “way in”) or seen you at another audition and received positive response from bringing you in for other show.

We’ve explored the some of the pathways to Broadway in this article. Check in soon for the final post in this series where we will explore life beyond the Broadway gig.

Making it to Broadway, Part 2

Educational and Environmental Advantages of Actors in Broadway Musicals

I attended the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska a couple of weeks ago. As a college professor, I was there to recruit for my school and saw over 600 students audition for college theatre programs and scholarships. I’m always fascinated to discover pockets of the country that seem to have more than their fair share of great student actors. You quickly notice that many strong talents seem to come from the same high schools. How does that happen? What is the advantage? Is there something in the water? Maybe. But at a conference attended by students, teachers and industry professionals from all over the country (and the world!) – why are the best students coming from roughly 7-8 schools?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that the drama teachers at these schools must be excellent. They are teaching real skills and professional technique, as evidenced by their students’ performances and auditions. They’ve done a full year of productions – often outside of their curriculum, they have the chutzpah to get themselves to a National event, usually after local and state levels, and somehow they have raised the financial resources to make it all happen. However, many of these students also have real talent. And while several of them are lone high school theatre stars, many of them go to school together.

thespian pic 2015 Thespian audience for Xanadu

Let’s continue to dig a little deeper into that part of our survey. In the summer of 2014, 100 actors in Broadway Musicals were asked a series of questions about their education, backgrounds and early careers. As a parent of child about to start kindergarten, I have a renewed interest in the birth dates and school-readiness of children in the same “grade”. Kids can be in the same class – but possibly 10 – 11 months apart in age, a big difference for 4-5 year-olds. In his popular book, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses this subject at length. He noticed in his native Canada that the majority of professional Hockey players have birthdays in January, February and March. Everyone knows that Canadians are wildly passionate about hockey and most of them play the sport – at least as kids. Gladwell explains that hockey has an age-based class structure following the calendar year with a cut-off at the end of December. Therefore the oldest 9-year-olds (for example) generally have an advantage because they are larger and more coordinated than their younger teammates who might have been born later in the year. Because of this, these older children are placed on more advanced teams, given better coaching and compete at a higher level than children eight to twelve months younger than them. This advantage leads to better skills and achievement at a faster rate – which can lead to professional careers in Hockey.

However, for Broadway actors in this survey, this phenomenon is somewhat reversed: most respondents said they fell somewhere in the middle (53%) or on the younger side (34%) – compared to their classmates. Of course, maturity doesn’t always come with age (thank goodness) – but perhaps we can make a connection between younger children in class with less social, emotional and physical control and those theatre kids drawn to the stage where they find freedom and approval (and attention). As a former theatre kid, with an August birthday, this sounds very familiar to me.

So, where ya’ from?

Rest assured that actors on Broadway are from every corner of the globe – including non-hockey-playing Canadians. But, when asked where they grew up and in what-sized town, there were a few surprises. The largest group of respondents (28) is from the Midwest/Great Lakes region – and most of them are from a medium-sized city. The next three groups were about the same size – Northeast (16), Southeast (15) and Mid-Atlantic/East Coast (13) – and all equally split between large, medium and small towns. This trend could mean than being relatively close to the Big Apple, perhaps traveling there on vacation or a school trip, enables student actors to consider the city a real possibility. Actors from Texas and the Southwest are predominately from large cities, Rocky Mountain and Plain State respondents were from medium-sized cities – and the West Coast representatives were evenly split between medium/large cities. Very few actors (5 total) came from the Deep South/Mid-south – and military families (2) or international backgrounds (2) made up the rest.

Geography has a lot to do with this data. If you’re from Massachusetts – living in New York City isn’t that far from family and home, but that is a different reality for kids from Oregon or Arkansas. Amazingly, I found similar geographic patterns with students at the Thespian Festival. (*Lincoln, Nebraska – and the festival – are not easy to get to or even necessary for every theatre hopeful – so please forgive my broad generalizations.) It isn’t hard to imagine that a large group of talented theatre students from high schools with strong theatre programs would mirror the background results of professional actors currently working on Broadway. The exception was that far fewer theatre students from the Northeastern part of the US – whom I presume plan to study closer to home – attended the conference. But among the strongest students that auditioned, Texas/SW students were almost always from Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas and Phoenix (large cities); students from the Rocky Mountain and Plain States were mostly from Denver, Colorado Springs or Kansas City; West Coast kids followed the same trend as above – (very few were from California where film is the more visible performance avenue), and there was an even distribution of students from the Mid-west and Southern towns – large and small.

The Broadway actors overwhelmingly described their hometowns as supportive of the arts (83%) and 88% of them grew up seeing theatre performances in their metropolitan area. This kind of access is explained in the geographical data. If you live in a larger city you have the chance to see professional theatre and perhaps national touring companies of Broadway shows. But if you live in the middle of nowhere – the idea of making a career in the theatre may not even occur to you.

Sing Out, Louise!

Family influence also plays a huge part in the life of young actors. 17% of actors in our survey had immediate family members or other close relatives that were professional actors, singers, dancers or musicians. Another 27% had relatives that participated on an amateur level in community theatre, church choir or other hobbyist capacity. Notably, for the majority of these actors (56%), this wasn’t the case. They are pioneers! But somehow, somewhere, they were gaining an appreciation for Broadway Music – ranking TV/Movies as the most common place to learn about and love this material – with family, school/classes and friends all coming in at a close second. This led to first performances at an early age: 21% at age 5 or under – and a full 85% listing their first official performance by age 12. If you’re 13-years old, GET ON IT. But seriously, an environment offering early exposure and access to Musical Theatre and all of the performing arts is the largest common denominator for a successful career on Broadway.