Golden Age of Theatre at the University of Utah

by HASTY NAZARINIA

In the world of performing arts, making it to the big lights of Broadway is almost an impossible goal to obtain. So when the University of Utah began its Musical Theatre Program in 1976, the program boasted some of the most successful “triple threats” to have ever walked this campus, and many of those talented singers/actors/dancers became original cast members in prominent shows such as A Chorus Line, Cats and Les Miserables.

So why did such a successful program close down after producing such amazing talent?

Keith Engar, head of the Department of Theatre and executive director of Pioneer Theatre Company, started the Musical Theatre Program in May 1976. Given an assignment to put on a full-length musical, he turned to fellow colleague Rowland Butler to train singers into dancers. The production was No No Nanette, a musical set in 1925 Atlantic City. The production was dance-heavy and needed talented dancers. Rowland was given about four months to train the newcomers and shape them into a star cast. That was the beginning of one of the most successful musical theatre programs in the University’s history. [citation needed]

Students had little time to train for No No Nannette, but with rehearsals going on for eight hours a day, it was all starting to come together. In addition they had to learn music and acting for the production. No No Nannette premiered at the U in the fall of 1973 to rave reviews. Director Keith Engar, choregrapher Rowland Butler and musical director James Prigmore were praised. The Salt Lake Tribune stated it was a “happy extravaganza … with excellent choreographic style, PMT chorus never misses a beat.” (Funk)

A few years later a BFA in musical theatre was developed. The first in the Midwest, it was the baby to an already prestigious line of arts degrees such as an MFA in arts administration, directing, playwriting, children’s theatre and a Ph.D. program in playwriting. [citation needed]

The Theatre Department worked with the Department of Dance and the School of Music to provide expert training in each field and offered BFA and MFA degrees. Various majors were offered such as dance, theatre and vocal performance, all with the options of a musical theatre emphasis. The MTP was one of two of the largest graduate programs within the Department of Theatre, the other being Child Drama. [citation needed]

The program trained students from day until night with various jazz, tap, acting, voice, theory classes among others. Many of the students auditioned throughout and would leave the program with a contract with touring musical companies. Most of the students left the program before graduation and with the success of the students the program gained recognition. [citation needed]

A total of 15 University of Utah students were in the cast of the successful Broadway musical A Chorus Line. One student, Cynthia Fleming, was in the original Broadway cast and stayed with the show until its closing in 1990. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune she credited the University’s Musical Theatre program for advancing her professional training and preparing her for the role. (Blake)

The success of the musical theatre program only added to the already nationally recognized College of Fine Arts Institute of the Arts for its strong programs in theater, dance, music, art and architecture. (“Arts Receive”) The MFA program in Musical Theatre and Child Drama were the largest graduate programs within the Department of Theatre. The programs worked with Pioneer Memorial Theatre’s Young People Theatre program on community outreach projects combining young theatre students, University students and community actors.

It was in 1986 that the program began to fall apart. Charles Morey, the new artistic director for Pioneer Memorial Theatre Company, was hired to replace Engar. Due to low ticket sales, Morey moved the Youth Theatre Program off the main stage and added shows to cater to adult audience. Pioneer Theatre began to produce its own high-quality shows and was drifting away from the department. The theatre became a professional theatre known for its Broadway quality productions. (“About Pioneer”)

Years following, in 1988 department chair Marilyn Holt stepped down to devote more time to acting, directing and teaching. The department struggled to pick a replacement, but eventually hired Thomas Markus. What was then proposed was a drastic downsizing of the department majors and Markus wanted to cut seven graduate programs down to only MFAs in directing and design. With the support of various tenure-track/tenured faculty the decision was made to cut the programs, among them the BFA and MFA in Musical Theatre. This cut cost the department 150 majors and student had to find expert training elsewhere. [citation needed]

Subsequently as years passed the department lost other graduate programs until it dwindled down to undergraduate studies in acting, set design, stage management and theatre studies. A huge part of the University artistic expression was lost, the nationally recognized programs the department offered vanished. [citation needed]

But in the fall of 2010 the Department of Theatre began a new Musical Theatre Program with the help of David Schmidt. Schmidt was hired as the voice teacher for the department and was asked to help build a musical theatre program. Over a few years and with the help of other administration and faculty, the musical theatre program was developed. Looking at other successful programs around the country the department established a program that focuses on classical voice foundation, pedagogy, acting, jazz, modern and tap dancing. The program participates in the National Unified Auditions, a program that allows university programs to travel to major cities to audition students from around the country. The program takes about 20 students a year and is quickly expanding. [citation needed]

The new musical theatre program is approaching its third year and is slowly but surely continuing to grow. Currently the program is working with the dance department to provide expert training to the students and is expanding its vocal training. Working the program from the ground up with be tough, but it has all the potential to reach the success of the program that existed from 1976-1988. [citation needed]

Sources

Nancy Funk, “Yes, Yes! PMT’s ‘Nanette’ Proves Just Fun,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 27, 1973.

Rowland Butler, personal interview, April 6, 2012.

Marlyn Holt, telephone interview, April 12, 2012.

Xan Johnson, email interview, April 24, 2012.

Daisy Blake, “She’s One, Singular Sensation,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 9, 2011.

About Pioneer Theatre Company.” Pioneer Theatre Company.

“Arts Receive Donner Grant,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, June 3, 1976.

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