UM musical theater department head retires

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

In his opening lecture to freshmen, Brent Wagner — the head of the University of Michigan Musical Theatre Department who’s retiring — always writes “accompanist” in large letters on the blackboard.

The lesson is classic Wagner, whose passion and discipline over 32 years turned a newborn department into a national powerhouse. To celebrate the man and his impact, generations of Musical Theatre grads will stage “Maize and Blue on Broadway” at New York’s August Wilson Theatre on Monday. (Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.)

“It’s not ‘accompany-ist,’” explains 1999 grad Rachel Hoffman, now a casting director at an agency in New York. “You have to know how to spell it and pronounce it correctly.”

But back to “accompanist.”

In one sense, the lesson is about simple respect. You don’t want to offend the professionals you’re going to work with — and in musical theater, you will work with accompanists.

But getting it right reflects the thoughtfulness and attention to detail that Wagner, 66, maintains are imperative to any successful stage career.

“He made a point to communicate how important it is to be a kind, respectful, and considerate professional,” says 2014 grad Conor Ryan. “He once spent an entire hour-and-a-half lecture on the importance of thank-you cards.”

Celia Keenan-Bolger, a 2000 graduate who’s racked up three Tony nominations, says the program equipped her for a stage career as well as “in a larger sense, how to be a citizen of the world, to have compassion for other people, and to be a disciplined human being.”

It gets to the heart of Wagner’s conviction that a degree in musical theater is applicable not just to singing and dancing on Broadway, but almost any career.

“This field is all about understanding people through the use of character, and using your imagination to interpret the world,” he says. “There’s no field that doesn’t value that.”

You might think anyone with his job must have been a theater nut as a kid, but you’d be wrong.

Growing up in Moscow, Idaho, he only saw two productions — “Guys and Dolls” and “South Pacific” — before college.

“I was so naive,” Wagner says, chatting in his small office stuffed with files, books and movie posters. “I didn’t understand how the actors learned all those lines. And I didn’t understand that they would do the exact same show the next night.”

At Indiana University, Wagner majored in music and theater, dabbled in journalism, and decided to become a Broadway rehearsal pianist. He needed money before moving to Manhattan, so he wrote 50 colleges to see if they’d like a class in musical theater.

He landed at Syracuse University, and discovered to his surprise that he loved teaching.

In 1984, Paul Boylan — dean of what at the time was just the UM School of Music — called to ask if he’d like to come flesh out a brand new program.

Boylan, now dean emeritus, was impressed with Wagner’s “encyclopedic” knowledge of musical theater and the man’s academic instincts.

“He was very specific and uncompromising in his views,” Boylan recalls. “It was that certainty that convinced me this guy knew what he was doing. And he did.”

Admission to the program is blisteringly competitive — last year, 1,000 kids applied for the 20 freshman slots. Once in, Wagner’s students still have to take a full slate of academic courses, on top of intensives in singing, dancing and acting.

“It’s a university education, as well as a BFA,” Wagner says. “Broad exposure develops your imagination and capacity as an artist.”

But winning respect in the academy for musical theater has been an uphill climb.

“A lot of theater people don’t think what we do is real acting,” says Wagner, “and a lot of musicians think we’re not doing real singing.”

But nothing succeeds like success, and the “News of Graduates” in the department’s current bulletin underlines just how successful the program has been at launching Broadway careers. A few examples:

Jenni Barber (2005) just finished a long run on Broadway as Glinda in “Wicked.” Gavin Creel (1998) won an Olivier Award for the London production of “The Book of Mormon.”

Matthew Rego (1992) produced the Tony Award-winning “Urinetown.” And Brynn O’Malley (2003) snagged a Helen Hayes Award for her performance in “She Loves Me.”

In fact, Michigan grads are so plentiful on Broadway there’s talk of a “Michigan Mafia.”

Giving them a leg up right out of school is the “Senior Showcase” Wagner launched 20 years ago, which takes graduating seniors to New York to perform for an elite audience of directors, producers, agents and casting directors.

It’s not unusual for kids to sign with an agent or manager right then and there.

This year’s “Senior Showcase” was May 3, and some of the graduates who were there already miss Wagner.

“I absolutely love the man,” says Luke Steinhauer. “He helps you. He’s accessible. And he cares, like, deeply. And he made musical theater an academic discipline.”

Give the guy who hired Wagner the last word: “Brent’s a wonderful man,” Boylan says, “and he’s made a truly significant contribution to the University of Michigan.”

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‘Maize and Blue on Broadway’

7 p.m., Monday

August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., New York

Tickets: $50-$250, available from Ticketmaster.com

mmtaef.com/