Musical theater takes a turn in the spotlight
Two productions are included in Theatre Department's Mainstage season
Attending the Theatre Department’s musical version of “The Wizard of Oz” as a high school student was an eye-opening experience for Sarah Wallikas.
“When I first thought of Binghamton University, it was business and science — not a place that a wacky arts kids like me would end up,” said the sophomore from Endwell, N.Y. “I can remember coming to see Tommy Iafrate’s production of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I had lived (locally) and didn’t necessarily know this existed and was available to me. Seeing that show and how much the department has to offer got the ball rolling for me. It made me feel comfortable deciding to come here.”
Two years later, Wallikas is one of many students showcasing their skills in a growing musical-theater program. The Theatre Department not only has a musical-theater director in Iafrate, but it has also added courses and faculty members such as choreographer/director David Wynen and music director Robyn Womersley.
“Musical theater is a marketable skill to have if you are a performer in the real world,” said Iafrate, who joined the faculty in 2015. “It’s something this department wants to prepare students for.”
That preparation will soon likely include a major in the subject, as the department is awaiting approval from SUNY to offer a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater.
Double the fun
The Theatre Department is shining a spotlight on musical theater this academic year. For the first time in a decade, two musicals – “A Man of No Importance” and “Sweet Charity”— are part of the four-show Mainstage schedule.
For the past two years, the department has featured one Mainstage musical (“The Wizard of Oz” in 2017-18 and “Guys and Dolls” in 2018-19) and one studio musical with a small cast (“The World Goes ‘Round” in 2017-18 and “Ordinary Days” in 2018-19).
The Theatre Department sought to do a more contemporary musical this fall, said Iafrate, who added that past shows such as “Guys and Dolls” and “Bells are Ringing” were traditional productions that featured “lots of dancing and singing and jazz hands.”
Enter “A Man of No Importance.” The show, based on the 1994 film of the same name, was written by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. It tells the story of a Dublin theater group led by Alfie Byrne (played by Binghamton University senior Gabriel Pinciotti). Alfie’s life changes when he attempts to stage a production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” at a local church.
“The characters are from a musical-theater community and don’t have the razzle-dazzle and the shine of traditional musical theatre,” said Iafrate, who is directing the show. “It’s a story that’s much more invested in heart and character and exploring what it means to be an ordinary, everyday person — and how the arts and theater still impact those who aren’t obsessed with theater.”
“A Man of No Importance,” which takes place at 8 p.m. Nov. 15-16, 22-23 and 2 p.m. Nov. 24 in Watters Theater, will be balanced with Neil Simon’s “Sweet Charity.” The 1966 musical about taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine will run from March 13-22 in Watters Theater, with direction and choreography from Wynen.
“Sweet Charity” will present more opportunities for musical-theater students interested in dance, Iafrate said.
“It fits well with the talents of our student body and what we’ve done in the past,” he said.
Musical theater is thriving today — and it goes beyond Broadway productions and national-touring shows, Iafrate said.
“There are opportunities on cruise ships, theme parks and other places that demand the skills of musical-theater performers,” he said, “even if the dancers are lip-syncing to a track or if singers get to park and bark while people dance around them. It still requires a musical-theater ‘vocabulary’ and knowledge to execute clearly and cleanly while story-telling.”
As musical-theater opportunities have increased over the past two decades, academia has followed in emphasis. Binghamton University theatre students have noticed the growth.
Andrew Ajaka, a sophomore from Queens, didn’t start musical theater until late in his senior year of high school.
“I did a show for the first time and it changed the way I look at affecting the world,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere that would give me the opportunity to explore that.”
Ajaka said he then watched clips from the Theatre Department’s 2015 production of “Spring Awakening” and a “one-minute major” video before deciding to attend the University and major in theatre.
While onstage experience is valuable, being able to take classes such as Iafrate’s Techniques of Musical Theatre is also vital to the theatre majors.
“It’s been one of my favorite classes,” said Christine Skorupa, a senior from Queens who has been featured in “The Wizard of Oz,” “Bells are Ringing” and “Guys and Dolls.” “Singing in musical theater is something that’s unique. You can take for granted that it’s just a pretty song, but Tommy teaches us to tell the story. You get movement, singing and acting in one class. It changed the way I view musical theater.”
For Ajaka, the class was memorable for its focus on the audition process and the importance of song selection.
“I came back the next semester with a new vigor toward auditioning and what I could get out of it,” he said.
The elements (and lessons) of musical theater
For the students, the keys to musical theater are more than excelling in acting, dancing and singing.
“You don’t have to be the best dancer out there: It’s about what you have to offer,” Skorupa said. “David Wynen talks a lot about thinking about yourself and what you have to offer. You are not going to be the best at all three things. But when you walk into an audition, you must know what you have and how you can sell it.”
Wallikas agreed: “It’s important to have self-reflection and know how people can connect with your performance style. It’s about honing in on that and refining that. What sets you apart from others is what people will remember about you and what people will hire you for.”
Pinciotti, a senior from Cochecton in Sullivan County, reminded his colleagues that there are different kinds of jobs available for those with a musical-theater background.
“Even if you are good at only two of (acting, singing and dancing), you can still find musical theater that specializes in those things,” he said. “You have to know how to sell yourself: ‘This is what I’m good at. Come watch me do it.’”
All four students admitted that dancing is their most challenging aspect.
“Not only is it physically demanding, but training your body to move in a specific way is something that may require you to start earlier in life,” Ajaka said. “But we all give the good effort and learn as much as we can — even if we didn’t start dancing when we were 3!”
The dancing challenge is not uncommon among musical-theater students and professionals, said Iafrate, who added that it’s hard to get 18 people in a chorus to do “the exact same thing at the exact same time.”
“There’s a specificity and exactitude in musical-theater dancing that is unforgiving,” he said. “If you don’t have a background in it, you can’t just catch up by taking a couple of classes during your freshman and sophomore years.”
Outside of class and off the stage, musical theater has provided the students with communication and connection skills.
“Musical theater has turned me into a more empathetic person,” Skorupa said. “I like to think I was empathetic before, but now I know what it means to listen and care about someone.”
“Public speaking and talking to a group of people is no longer an issue,” Pinciotti said. “You know how to do it. I have friends who can give a business presentation because they’ve been on stage and acted.”
Those lessons also enable musical-theater students to easily transition into non-entertainment fields, Iafrate said.
“The empathy, vulnerability and introspection that helps you know yourself are all life skills,” he said.
Iafrate, who also has taught at the Beijing Dance Academy in China, said the Theatre Department and its musical theater program will gain the ability to teach even more lessons by having a major and degree in the subject.
“If we have the certification saying ‘we offer musical theater,’ it will help us,” he said. “We will get more students (like Ajaka, Pinciotti, Skorupa and Wallikas) and keep the momentum going to do more shows at a greater level.”