Ohio University

Students headline Cabaret in the Forum Theater, 2018.

Opening Number

Musical Theater takes the stage

Alan Patrick Kenny, assistant professor of Theater and head of the School of Theater’s new undergraduate Musical Theater program, is hunting for unicorns. 

“When I say ‘unicorn’ performers, I really mean it,” Kenny says. “We wanted the most interesting people who wouldn’t normally get into cookie cutter, blend-in ensembles. We’re looking for unexpected voices. That’s what the theater business needs.” 

After observing more than 1,100 auditions during the 2018-19 academic year, Kenny welcomed just 29 performers into the program’s fall 2019 inaugural cohort.

During the next four years, the cohort will study within the Schools of Theater, Music, and Dance before emerging as Ohio University’s first-ever Musical Theater graduates. Key stakeholders at the college and in the School of Theater collaborated to rethink what musical theater education could be and how to set OHIO’s program apart.  

“We started from scratch and reinvestigated every single aspect of the possible curriculum,” Kenny says. “There are more than 125 programs in America and 14 in the State of Ohio. The first question we had to answer was, why create another one?” 

OHIO’s Musical Theater program responded energetically to this question with key innovations that got the attention of major industry sources like American Theater magazine and broadwayworld.com
 

School of Theater’s production of Cabaret produced in 2018.
School of Theater’s production of Cabaret produced in 2018. Musical Theater integrates choral and vocal arts in annual operatic productions led by music and theater faculty. Photo by Daniel J. King

“We’re thinking about the future of musical theater rather than musicals written 50 years ago,” says Michael Lincoln, director of the School of Theater, artistic director of Tantrum Theater, and professor of Lighting Design. 

For example, OHIO’s program is the first to require courses in hip-hop dance and the University’s long-running and influential History of Rock and Roll course. It’s also one of the first programs in the country to offer an actor/musicianship certificate, owing to a collaboration between the Schools of Theater and Music. 

Perhaps most notable about the program’s uncommon curriculum is that Musical Theater students are strongly encouraged to choose a specialization in areas like film, choreography, or a specific musical instrument. Why? While these skills could be integrated into musical theater productions in which they will one day be cast, they can also help graduates support themselves in between musical theater gigs. 

“This could be the thing that ends up paying off student loans,” said Kenny. “My job is to help them be successful, period. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

The program also established a Theater Performance Advisory Panel, made up of industry-leading alumni, friends of OHIO, and Tony Award winners. It’s set up to lend a hand in curricula review, visit classes as guest artists, and make recommendations based on what’s happening in the field. Their shared knowledge further lifts the unique design of the program, says College of Fine Arts Dean Matthew Shaftel. 

“By asking for their key partnership, Professor Kenny has been able to develop a completely new kind of musical theater curriculum that prepares musical theater students with the skills for the creative work of tomorrow. From business skills, to hip-hop dance, these students will emerge as more than the ‘triple threat’ (dance, singing, acting) graduates of most existing programs.” 

Kenny agrees. “We’re training people for the Broadway of 2030.”