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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

Blog

Ensemblist Training at Syracuse University

Mo Brady

What makes a musical theatre program successful at training ensemblists? Is it their focus on creating triple threats? The streetwise business savvy they teach their students? Or is it just something about the school’s culture?

For this series, I interviewed faculty and alumni at some of the American colleges and universities that send the largest number of graduates into the ensembles of Broadway shows. By asking them about their training and how their students define career success, I hope to unpack the commonalities between some of the country’s most prolific breeding grounds for Broadway ensemblists.
— Mo Brady

Syracuse University

BFA in Musical Theatre

College of Visual and Performing Arts

Founded in ?

 

Syracuse University’s musical theatre program is one that thrives on versatility. In and out of the classroom, students are encouraged to develop skills in a variety of areas through musical theater performance classes, audition technique, cabaret, and participation in the many production opportunities available each semester.

“Our philosophy is to train the whole person as a storyteller whether through song, dance or text. Show up, do the work, and find joy in what you do.” Andrea Leigh-Smith, Professor of Practice and Program Coordinator at Syracuse University Department of Drama.

“Syracuse doesn’t produce singing dancing robots who all look and dance the same,” says Jonalyn Saxer, a Syracuse graduate currently opening her fifth Broadway show, Mean Girls. “They produce well-rounded performers and people who can take on any type of ensemble piece, who are smart enough to analyze the project, know how best to serve it, as well as being able to cover and have features.”

One of the ways it provides this training is through its unique collaboration as Syracuse Stage. Sharing the same building as Syracuse Stage allows students opportunities to audition and work alongside professionals while gaining EMC points.

Syracuse University's Drama Department is connected to the Syracuse Stage, a professional regional theater company. Students are invited to audition for productions, allowing them hands-on experience working in a professional setting. “They dedicate a good number of contracts to students throughout the season,” says Chris Dwan of Broadway’s Finding Neverland. “This is such a cool way to get real professional experience while still in school. I was in the ensemble of Little Women during my time there.”

Seven student productions each season, including three musicals, also give students the opportunity to hone their skills onstage. Stephen Carrasco, currently a vacation swing on Broadway’s Anastasia, notes, “Performing at Syracuse taught me about stamina, building a backstory, helping to focus the audience’s attention, how the details matter, and how to be a good company member. All things I still try to do every time I step onstage.”

In the classroom, musical theater students learn singing techniques to support all styles of theater music, from operetta to rock, with foundational coursework in music theory, sight singing, and piano. The dance studio offers four levels of ballet and jazz plus additional studies in tap, modern, and theater dance styles. The acting training incorporates scene study, dramatic theory, text analysis, speech, movement, and on-camera skills.

Syracuse musical theatre students take courses that teach the skills of a triple threat from and ensemblist perspective: “The dance curriculum is only in the musical theater department, so all classes are based on the knowledge that we are training to pursue careers in musical theater, as opposed to other facets of the strictly dance world,” notes Saxer. “Also, you have to take music theory and sight singing classes, which have helped me an incredible amount when learning music and harmonies during rehearsals quickly.”

One of the greatest benefits of the Syracuse program is the New York Tepper semester. Started by alumn Arielle Tepper, seniors of the program spend the second semester of their senior year taking classes and living in New York City. It is the final step to bring the rigorous training into the professional world.

Leigh-Smith notes that all of this training is in service of creating whole artists that view the world through a creative lens: “I want graduates to seek an artistic path and truth, whether through performance, design, management, casting, directing, producing or writing. I hope that they walk away from our program recognizing the importance of contributing and collaborating.”

Alumni include not only leading ladies Jessie Mueller and Patti Murin, but long-running Broadway ensemblists across the decades including John Jeffrey Martin (Kinky Boots) and Joe Barbara (A Bronx Tale). Additionally, three Syracuse alumni are originating roles in the Broadway production of Mean Girls: Saxer, along with Cheech Monahar and Brendon Stimson.

“Seeing my students succeeding on Broadway perhaps the most rewarding part,” says Leigh-Smith. “The work and dedication in training students is intense and personal. To see them reaping the rewards of their commitment, effort, and development is like nothing else. It truly is a bit like parenting for a short and intense amount of time and then pushing them out to fly in hopes they find their fulfillment and accomplish what is important to their character.”