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.

Degree?

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.

Slide3(Click to Enlarge)

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.

Majors

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

Slide4  (Click to Enlarge)

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
IMG_1713
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).

Casting

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.

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3 thoughts on “Making it to Broadway, Part 3

  1. Really enjoying your posts Ashton! Something that I am curious about, and hoping you will look into, is vocal training for musical theatre. How do you balance classical training with pop styles? Clearly there is a need for both vocal styles and to make yourself more marketable most people study both. However, on a collegiate level what are the best options. While Juilliard offers majors in all three disciplines, they do not offer a musical theatre degree. Is it better to pick one style and stick with that or really try to be as versatile as possible?

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    1. Hey Greta!
      Thanks for the question. Musical Theatre training programs are pretty common now. While a few are stuck in the “classical voice only” mindset, the best programs will offer comprehensive vocal training. I think your top priority is to find a school with several voice teachers that are Musical Theatre specialists. They should be well-versed in classical technique but specialize in teaching Musical Theatre styles. Singers hoping to work in musicals need teachers who don’t faint at the notion of belting or riffing, but instead can offer proper technique for pop/rock/ R & B, etc. The majority of current Broadway shows feature something other than classical or legit singing. Another tip: find a school with a great vocal music program where students are studying commercial music as well as classical. That will let you know that the college fosters vocal versatility.

      Great singers should be able to sing everything but many performers gravitate to one style – or perhaps have highly specialized abilities in one style. As a young performer, it probably isn’t necessary to pick one style yet. But you can certainly work on the kinds of shows that you are right for and master those styles and performance traditions.
      Hope that helps!

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