UM grads making a big splash on stage

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Some call it the "Michigan mafia" — Broadway slang for the prevalence of University of Michigan musical-theater graduates on the New York stage.

"Michigan graduates say it with a smile," says 2014 musical-theater grad Conor Ryan, who just closed in a well-reviewed off-Broadway musical. "I'm not sure everybody else does."

Founded in 1984 within the UM School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the musical-theater department graduates about 20 seniors a year, all primed to sing and dance their way across the Broadway stage.

Helping get these careers going is the annual Senior Showcase, when the department takes all the graduating seniors to New York for a special performance before Broadway insiders. Generally about half the kids sign with agents, says department chairman Brent Wagner, who launched the showcase 21 years ago.

"We have a great success rate," he says.

"Michigan kids do really well in New York," says New York casting director Rachel Hoffman, who herself graduated from the program in 1999. "I may be a little biased, but the training is the best and the graduates have a reputation even among non-Michigan people for being reliable, well-prepared and good to be in a room with."

Recent UM successes include Darren Criss, Class of 2009 -- an acting major, actually -- the long-running "Glee" character who's currently starring in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" on Broadway. But beyond the household names are hundreds of other working professionals with UM roots.

Here are four of those rising stars: Erika Henningsen, Brynn O'Malley, Ashley Park and Conor Ryan.


Erika Henningsen

When Erika Henningsen calls friends or family a little after 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, the immediate question is, "Have you died yet?"

That answer would be "Yes."

Henningsen, who graduated in 2014, scored a great part in the Broadway revival of "Les Miserables" playing Fantine, an impoverished young mother. And every night, Fantine expires from multiple causes promptly at 8:30 p.m.

It's like being shot out of a cannon, says Henningsen, 22. "It's a three-hour show, and I have this 30-minute melodrama right at the start. And then I die."

Actually, the whole year must have felt a bit like getting shot out of a cannon. Like all her classsmates, Henningsen went to New York shortly before graduation last year to perform in the U-Mich Showcase before an audience of Broadway professionals, where she signed with an agency.

Right out of the box, she got cast in a PBS production of "Showboat" at Lincoln Center, which will air in October. (For the record, Henningsen says she's "terrified.") There followed a starring role in the Washington, D.C., production of "Diner," based on the 1982 Barry Levinson film with music written by Sheryl Crow.

Midway through "Diner's" run, her agent called to say the producers of "Les Mis" wanted her to come back and audition again — this time for Fantine.

"I'd already auditioned for Fantine's daughter, Cosette," Henningsen says. "I thought I was too young and outgoing for Fantine."

All the same, she dutifully got on a train for New York, "totally exhausted, and probably looking like a wet dog," she says, and did the audition.

A week or so passed, and "Diner" closed. Henningsen was just taking the first steps in that rite of Broadway life — applying for unemployment.

"That's how this world goes," she says. "You're on Cloud 9, doing work you're proud of — and then you're unemployed."

But before she could file, she says, "My agent called and said I had the 'Les Mis' job."


Conor Ryan

When a New York Times critic sits down in a Manhattan theater, word travels backstage at the speed of light.

So 2014 grad Conor Ryan knew before he took the stage late last winter that the off-Broadway musical in which he was co-starring, "John & Jen," was about to get the stern once-over.

A true artist, Ryan swore he wouldn't read the review. Period. "And then," he says, "my phone blew up like an atom bomb."

Small wonder. Here's what Ben Brantley, the Times' senior drama critic, said:

"The relatively little-known Mr. Ryan, a graduate of the University of Michigan ... gives a witty, fluid and precociously assured performance that should have casting directors pricking up their ears."

Many actors would barter their first-born for that sort of endorsement. "I was at a Target when I finally read it," Ryan says, "jumping up and down like a madman."

The show was always scheduled to have just a two-month run. It closed April 4.

The California native arrived in New York for the Senior Showcase already committed to summer stock in Indiana. But the big city was more interested in him than he'd anticipated, and before the young tenor knew it, he was signed with an agency and getting callbacks on auditions.

"At the last second, I hate to say, I bowed out of the summer stock," Ryan says. "A week or two later, I found myself in 'Cinderella' on Broadway," dancing in the ensemble and understudying for the prince — Joe Carroll, a 2012 UM grad.

But "Cinderella" didn't hold Ryan long. Just weeks into the job, he got cast in the premiere of "The Fortress of Solitude" at New York's celebrated Public Theater. After that closed came the opportunity with "John & Jen" that won that great review.

And now that he's between shows, Ryan's been out in Los Angeles auditioning. He's in talks he can't elaborate on with DreamWorks Pictures, and is up for a part in "Bent" opening in July at the Mark Taper Forum. He's got a couple other pots on the boil, too.

"I'm here for callbacks," he says. "There are a few I can't divulge, which is too bad because I'd love to shout it from the rooftops."

In any case, it doesn't sound like he'll have to wait long for that next part.


Brynn O'Malley

Brynn O'Malley co-starred in the well-reviewed "Honeymoon in Vegas" with Tony Danza until it closed April 4, which was a considerable disappointment for the 2003 UM graduate.

"We thought we were dead, and then thought we'd make it to the Tonys," O'Malley says.

"It got complicated at the last minute." She sighs, adding, "It hit Tony harder than anyone."

But two days later, O'Malley won a Helen Hayes Award for her performance last year in "Sunday in the Park with George" at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.

"The best way to deal with the closing of one show is to get a trophy for another the next day," she says.

O'Malley, who's also done TV and film, has had an enviable streak since landing in the big city 12 years ago, with good roles in the 2008 Broadway revival of "Sunday in the Park with George," as well as the later D.C. production, and the 2012 revival of "Annie."

"Honeymoon in Vegas," where she originated the role of Betsy, was O'Malley's big break as a lead actress.

"You don't get to do comedy that often in musical theater," she says. "And 'Honeymoon in Vegas' wasn't just musical-theater funny. It was laugh-out-loud funny."

Comedy, she adds, is a whole different beast from drama: "With comedy, you've really got to have the audience with you and a good rapport with your co-stars, because you're each responsible for the other's laugh."

O'Malley laughs. "Drama is like living up in Connecticut. Comedy is like living in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan."

Back in New York after picking up her award, the Michigan native is putting her unexpected free time to good use.

"I've been doing this 12 years," O'Malley says. "My boyfriend and I are going on our first vacation together in seven years. Then I'm going to visit my family and, I don't know, get my life together.

"And then start looking for the next job."

Ashley Park

Playing Tuptim in the Lincoln Center revival of "The King and I," says Ashley Park, who graduated in 2013, has been a total out-of-body experience.

"If you'd told me a year ago that I'd be in a Lincoln Center production directed by Bartlett Sher," says the Ann Arbor native, "I wouldn't have believed you. It's a huge breakthrough for me."

Park plays the rebellious Burmese slave who's given to the Siamese king, and her work has won raves. Playbill magazine just named Park one of 2014-2015's "breakout performances."

All Broadway success stories involve triumph over adversity, but Park's overcome more than most. As a sophomore at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School, she was diagnosed with — and ultimately beat — acute myeloid leukemia.

She credits the illness with sharpening her will and helping her really connect with the theater.

"I'm a lot more resilient and determined now," Park says. "People apparently see that on stage — they say they see a fearlessness."

Her credits so far include seven months singing and dancing in the Broadway "Mamma Mia!" last year and touring with the national production of "Cinderella." But nothing compares to playing Tuptim.

"It's the most important work in storytelling I've ever been involve in," Park says, "and it's at such a big scale. My big solo at top is 'My Lord and Master,' and then I have two duets with my lover. But getting to sing while standing above a 29-piece orchestra? It's mindblowing."

She credits her training in the UM musical theater program, as well as the coaching she got from her mentor at Pioneer, Susan Hurwitz.

Asked where she'd like to be in five years, Park sensibly demurs, leery of jinxing herself.

"This is just the beginning of my career," she says. "I never thought I could make it in this business, but it looks like it's going that way. I'm just open to whatever the universe or God brings me."