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ASU musical theater students learn from professionals, arts organization partnerships

musical theatre students practicing

ASU musical theater students practicing "West Side Story."

April 05, 2018

From the Phoenix Symphony to Arizona Opera, local arts organizations offer musical theater students at Arizona State University not only a glimpse into their potential future careers but a chance to learn from these professionals, thanks to collaborations between the School of Music’s Lyric Opera Theatre program.

A recent collaboration was the 60th anniversary celebration of “West Side Story” with the Phoenix Symphony and Tito Muñoz, music director and conductor, March 2–3. The full performance concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s legendary smash hit featured acclaimed Broadway vocalists along with the Phoenix Symphony and several students from Lyric Opera Theatre and the School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

“The Lyric Opera Theatre collaboration with the Phoenix Symphony began in 2016 after Kristin Chenoweth, actress and singer, reached out to local students to sing backup for her concert, and our students made a good impression,” said Brian DeMaris, associate professor in the School of Music and artistic director of Lyric Opera Theatre.

Muñoz continued the ongoing relationship. He notified DeMaris that the symphony was performing “West Side Story” and suggested another collaboration. A total of 10 students and three alumni performed in the concert.

DeMaris said the students also participated in a weeklong workshop in October with the production director, choreographer and Muñoz to develop a staged version of the performance.

“One thing that really stood out to me about the process was how to look at established material through a fresh lens,” said Vaibu Mohan, an undergraduate performance in musical theater major. “Our director pushed us to breathe new life into each character. I learned that every character that I play is a human being and needs to be portrayed as one.” 

DeMaris said even though the workshop was based on a staged performance and the actual performance was a concert, students learned adaptability and flexibility by being involved from the start and by helping build the foundation for the performance.  

“I learned that this career comes with a lot of highs and lows and it’s easy to want to give up when you are going through a ‘low,’” said Elyssa Blonder, an undergraduate performance in musical theater major. “Remember that this is what you love to do and that it is all worth it in the end — never give up.” 

DeMaris said in addition to working with faculty artists, it is important for students to work with outside professionals as much as possible and to build their resume professionally.

“All of these collaborations with the local professional organizations give students an opportunity to learn by being around other professionals — directors, choreographers, artists — and see what the expectations are,” said DeMaris. “Our students inevitably rise up and do better work than they would when they are just in a classroom.”

Toby Yatso, lecturer in the School of Music, also had a role in the production and said that the concert bridged classical symphonic traditions and American musical theater.

“It is thrilling to see my students take what they learn in their classrooms and studios and apply it directly to a professional project in their community,” Yatso said. “It’s inspiring to see how they all have progressed and matured since their first courses and that each one of them is unique, talented, thoughtful and ready to leave their fingerprint on the world as musical theater artists.”

DeMaris said the “West Side Story” collaboration is one of the bigger productions the students have been involved with and is the first musical collaboration with the symphony.

“I envy our students’ experience to perform at Symphony Hall with Tito Muñoz and all these great Broadway stars who have lead roles, and with a full symphony orchestra to some of the greatest music on the musical theater stage,” DeMaris said. 

Several students also had the opportunity to meet two iconic Broadway legends, Tommy Tune and Chita Rivera (original “West Side Story” cast member), courtesy of Alan Naplan, Arizona Musicfest executive and producing director.

DeMaris said formal collaborations with Arizona Opera and the Phoenix Theatre allow everyone to work together in season planning. Students understudy and perform roles in both companies’ productions and receive credit toward their degrees.

Arizona Opera, Phoenix Theatre, Arizona Musicfest and ASU Gammage’s touring company staff also arrange for guest artists to teach master classes to Lyric Opera Theatre students.

The Lyric Opera Theatre program is unique in that it combines professional training in both opera and musical theater and is open to all students throughout the university. In addition to the collaborations, the program produces four fully-staged and costumed opera and musical theater productions on campus each year.

“I think that what gives me a lot of pride is that here in Arizona, our musical theater program is looked at as being worthy of our students mingling with these great people like Tito Muñoz, Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune,” DeMaris said. “When people say ‘we should involve some students’ and they immediately come to us — I just love that! I think that says a lot about the town and about the students that we have here.”

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