Musical theatre program maintains strong presence on Broadway

University Park, Pa. -- In January 2009, the number of Penn State musical theatre alumni performing simultaneously on Broadway peaked at 13 -- a particularly impressive number considering the University’s musical theatre program was started just 15 years ago.

"It typically takes many years for an academic program to attain the prestige and national prominence our musical theatre program has achieved in a short period of time," said Cary Libkin, head of the program since its inception in 1994. "The quality of our faculty -- as teachers and as professional artists -- has attracted students from across the country who have gone on to make their own names for themselves. News of our alumni's success has spread and Penn State is now considered one of the top places to train for a career in musical theatre."

Alumni of the musical theatre program have appeared in Broadway productions including "Grease," "Gypsy," "Hairspray," "A Chorus Line" and "Rent," among others. Aaron Galligan-Stierle, a 2005 graduate, was just selected for the Broadway revival of "Ragtime," which will open in November 2009. "Our alumni have been terrifically successful in landing jobs right after graduation," said Libkin, noting musical theatre graduates perform with national tours and in regional theatres, in addition to Broadway roles.

That success is due in large part to the training and mentoring students receive from faculty who are dedicated to preparing them for a highly competitive field. Those mentoring relationships with faculty continue long after graduation. When Mindy Dougherty, a 2001 graduate, landed "Gypsy" on Broadway, Libkin was the second person she told. "The support I still feel from faculty has been instrumental in my drive and perseverance," she said in a 2008 interview.

Libkin has been a leader among musical theatre educators nationwide. He was instrumental in the creation of the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance and organized its first meeting, held at Penn State in 1999. The past artistic director of Struthers Library Theater, he maintains a freelance directing career, including directing many productions for Pennsylvania Centre Stage, the professional arm of Penn State's School of Theatre.

Mary Saunders, head of voice instruction, also has national prominence as the country's leading teacher of "belt" voice, Broadway's distinctive style. She is the author of "Bel Canto/Can Belto: Teaching Women to Sing Musical Theatre," a DVD tutorial for teachers of singing.

Current students in the musical theatre program frequently serve as ambassadors for Penn State, performing at University President Graham Spanier's tailgates before football games and accompanying him on international tours. In March 2009, 12 musical theatre students performed in Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul and Beijing on the eighth annual Musical Theatre Tour, sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association. Musical theatre students previously toured Asia in 2002. Other tours have taken them to England, California, Florida and Texas, plus regional cities such as Philadelphia and New York.

As the musical theatre program has grown, the School of Theatre's graduate directing program has shifted its focus to musical theatre, making it the only M.F.A. program of its kind in the country. "This builds on our strengths in musical theatre and filled a void in academic theatre," said Dan Carter, director of the School of Theatre. "Bringing in award-winning Broadway director Susan Schulman to lead that program was a great coup for us."

In fall 2009, the undergraduate musical theatre program will welcome 12 freshmen, selected from more than 425 prospective students who auditioned for the musical theatre faculty. Said Libkin, "We hold auditions in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and on campus, searching the country for the finest talent."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010