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UT Department of Theatre & Dance: Gotta sing! Gotta dance!

The new Musical Theatre Pilot Project aims to prepare UT undergrads for belting for Broadway

By Barry Pineo, Fri., April 11, 2008

Christopher Skillern as John Wilkes Booth in <i>Assassins</i>
Christopher Skillern as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins

If you seek entertainment of the musical theatre variety in the Austin area, you probably go to Zach Theatre. Or to the Paramount. Or perhaps to Zilker Park for the summer musical. Or maybe even to St. Edward's University. But one place that doesn't come immediately to mind, if it even crosses your mind, is the University of Texas.

Until now. "We've long been having discussions in the College of Fine Arts about whether or not we should be offering a musical-theatre program," says Bob Schmidt, the interim chair of UT's Department of Theatre & Dance. "Putting together a program in musical theatre is a heavy proposition, no small thing in terms of space, faculty money, production resources. What I thought would be really useful for us to do would be to augment the kinds of musical-theatre experiences that our undergraduate students, in particular, have."

Thus was born the two-year Musical Theatre Pilot Project. "There are a number of different pieces to it," says Schmidt. "Officially, the pilot program started this last fall, although we really got a jump on it early last spring when Robin Lewis started teaching dance for musical theatre. Then last semester, we added course work in singing for musical theatre with Lyn Koenning."

The department also tapped former Theatre & Dance professor Rod Caspers to direct the program's initial musical offering of Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's ode to the American penchant for making celebrities out of cold-blooded killers, opening this weekend. Before the auditions, Caspers and Koenning teamed up to offer a series of workshops on auditioning for musical theatre. "I think the focus at UT has certainly not been on doing musical theatre," says Caspers, "and I think they're trying to bring a little of the focus back for those students who want to look at that. They want students to leave here equipped to go out and have a chance to make it."

While Assassins might not seem a natural choice to kick off the production aspect of the program, you wouldn't think so listening to Caspers. "They wanted a piece that offered a large number of students a meaty role, and unlike some musicals where you've got four or five major roles and then you've got a large chorus, this is a musical that's got eight, nine, 10 meaty roles, all of which have those elements that they're really focusing on in the project. It's not a huge cast, but everyone in it has something important to do."

And as new work has long been the focus for the department, the project will culminate in the summer of 2009 with the production of an entirely original musical. "It's an experiment," says Schmidt. "There certainly is a lot of interest on the part of our students to have these kinds of experiences as part of the program that we currently offer, and this is an experiment that will help us to determine where we might go next."


Assassins runs April 11-20, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Saturday, April 19, and Sundays, 2pm, at the B. Iden Payne Theatre, 300 E. 23rd. For more information, call 477-6060 or visit www.utpac.org.

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