Photographs by Jenny Anderson
THE MAKING OF “MAIZE & BLUE ON BROADWAY”
What happened when U-M musical theater alumni learned that Brent Wagner was retiring after 32 years as department chair? They set in motion a 17-month plan to produce a one-night-only, sellout show on May 16. “Hamilton,” eat your heart out.
— Scene 1 —
The Living Room of a New York Apartment
TWO ALUMNI OF THE U-M Department of Musical Theatre, Celia Keenan-Bolger, ’00, and Gavin Creel, ’98, are in Creel’s apartment, discussing an email they received the day after Christmas.
“It is the shock heard around the world,” says Creel, whose Broadway credits include “Book of Mormon,” “Hair,” and, currently, a lead role in the Tony-nominated revival of “She Loves Me.” Creel is referring to an email from Brent Wagner—or “Mr. Wagner” as they referred to him as students—telling musical theater (MT) graduates that he will step down as chair of the MT department in the spring of 2016. It seems unimaginable. Wagner has been in charge of the program, which launched in 1980, since 1984.
“Who will teach MT 133? Who will tell students they need to write thank you notes?” Keenan-Bolger asks, nostalgically. Keenan-Bolger is an actress with three Tony nominations, including one for “The Glass Menagerie.” MT 133, a required freshman class taught religiously by Wagner, marks the beginning of a four-year journey where students learn the importance of professionalism, preparedness, etiquette, and empathy.
“Whether we became actors or doctors, Brent wanted us to leave respectful humans,” recalls Keenan-Bolger, her eyes misting up.
‘We have to do something for Brent,” Creel says, emphatically. “The Michigan Mafia have to come together on this one.” Creel uses the moniker for the tight-knit group of MT graduates, who total less than 600, as only 20 students are admitted each year.
Creel calls Linda Goodrich, an associate professor of choreography and musical direction in the MT department who has worked with Wagner for the last 20 years. She agrees with Creel and suggests enlisting the support of Matthew Rego, ’92, a Broadway producer and entertainment merchandiser whose company co-produced “Wicked.”
Creel nervously dials Rego’s number, hoping he will say “yes.” He does. “OK, let’s put on a show. It is all we know how to do anyway. But let’s bring Michigan to New York, not the other way around.”
“B-Wag on Broadway!” exclaims Creel.
IT IS THE first monthly meeting of the planning committee, which will grow to 21 alumni members. Those who are unable to attend call in or Skype in from afar. By March, the planning committee will meet twice a month. Six weeks before the event, they will convene every week.
“Let’s get this meeting started,” says Creel. “How should we structure the show?”
“We should incorporate songs Brent used to teach us in class,” suggests Todd Buonopane, ’00, a Broadway actor who returns to Ann Arbor annually to help direct the U-M “Senior Showcase”—a performance recent graduates put on in New York for casting directors and agents.
“What about a medley of his favorite songs?” suggests Goodrich, knowing Wagner’s love for tunes by Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Richard Rodgers.
“We should use as much U-M talent as possible. We have the most brilliant people who are the best in every area of the business,” Rego adds.
The Michigan Mafia quickly organize. Rego and Creel agree to co-produce the show. Goodrich recruits Nancy Uffner, a fellow U-M assistant professor, to stage manage. General managers David Turner, ’89, from “Book of Mormon” and Caitlyn Thomson, ’06, from “The Lion King” and “Mama Mia” offer assistance. Ben Whiteley, ’80, MMUS’81, whose credits include “Cats” and “Carousel,” puts his hand up to direct the music. Casting director Rachel Hoffman, ’99, will track down alumni to perform. The list evolves steadily. In the end, nearly 150 alumni will take part in “Maize & Blue on Broadway.”
One person, however, will be excluded. Brent Wagner will be told the date to attend, but he will know nothing else about the show.
REGO AND CREEL are meeting over breakfast. The two discuss how Wagner always tells his students that “it is more important to be part of something than to become something.”
“I think we should make this show part of something bigger,” says Creel. “He taught us, as Wolverines, to give back.”
“Brent loves the history of musical theater,” adds Rego. “We should do something to keep the program honoring the past but relevant to the future.”
Creel contacts Emily Agress, ’00, who chose banking over Broadway. She starts to set up the Michigan Musical Theatre Ambassador Endowment Fund. Its first initiative will be the Brent Wagner Speaker Series, bringing the industry’s top talent to campus each year for workshops and master classes. Funds will come from the show’s ticket sales and donations.
All is going well, but one thing is still needed. A Broadway theater, ideally for free.
REGO BEGINS LOOKING for a theater.
“Securing a Broadway theater always begins with the theater owner,” Rego says, knowledgeably. He approaches the Nederlander Organization, which owns nine Broadway theaters, and asks if one might be available on Monday, May 16. (Most Broadway theaters are “dark” on Monday nights.) The owners generously offer the Richard Rodgers Theatre, but with one caveat. Under no circumstances can the U-M show interfere with “Hamilton,” the hit musical currently playing there.
Rego calls Jeffrey Seller, ’86, the lead producer of “Hamilton.” Seller is only too happy to accommodate his fellow MT alumni, but quickly sees a scheduling glitch. In May, “Hamilton” will play Monday through Saturday. The theater will not be free.
Next up, the August Wilson Theatre. Both the owner of the venue and the producer of the show “Jersey Boys,” which is playing there, graciously offer the theater for free.
“We only have to pay labor costs—the stagehands, box office, ushers, et cetera,” Rego happily reports back to the planning committee.
Mission accomplished. The show has a venue.
— Scene 1 —
THE DEPARTMENT OF MUSICAL THEATRE IN ANN ARBOR
A PHONE RINGS, and Linda Goodrich picks up.
“We have a problem,” Creel tells Goodrich. The two are now speaking on the phone daily, sometimes twice with the show less than two months away. “We just lost the Wilson Theatre.”
Goodrich panics. Tickets to the event in the nearly 1,300-seat theater are already on sale. Since March, Goodrich and Uffner have been secretly rehearsing with the current MT students. Goodrich posted a notice in the department in February and was overwhelmed to see that 83 of the 85 current students wanted to take part in the event, despite having to pay their own way.
“April Fools!” Creel shouts through the phone. Goodrich realizes it is the first of the month. She starts breathing again.
IT IS 11:30 A.M. ON MAY 16, and MT alumni are hugging and greeting each other as they arrive for the noon-to-5 p.m. technical rehearsal. The show is that evening at 7 p.m.
“I can’t believe I just met Mary Michael Patterson,” says Carly Snyder, a rising senior, of Patterson, ’10, who has appeared on Broadway in both “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Anything Goes.”
“I just saw the choreographer Josh Rhodes. He was the answer to a test question in one of my classes!” says her classmate Annelida Canning-Skinner, about the 1993 graduate.
Meanwhile, Goodrich is running around with notes in her hands, getting ready for the very first rehearsal with the orchestra, sound engineers, and alumni all together in one space. “With 25 percent of the cast currently performing in Broadway shows, rehearsing has been a scheduling nightmare,” she laments. She explains that out-of-town cast members were asked to report to New York a week earlier for more than 50 rehearsals, scheduled at various venues, to rehearse some 20 musical numbers.
“Thank you for 32 years of my education.” – Brent Wagner
Wearing Michigan hats, Rego and Turner, along with Creel, call the cast to order.
“This is ours now!” Creel says, emphasizing the production and, more importantly, the need for everyone to donate to the Michigan Musical Theatre Ambassador Endowment Fund. The cast starts to dance and clap, chanting the acronym for the fund: “MMTAEF.”
“We have a new rock star taking over who will help us move the fund forward,” Creel says, referring to Vincent Cardinal. Cardinal, the former chair of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut, will replace Wagner in September.
“The show is sold out,” Creel reports later. “This is herculean. Tonight, we are the hottest ticket in town … not Hamilton!”
That evening, Hamilton’s lead producer, Jeffrey Seller, is among those in the audience.
THE SHOW’S GENERAL MANAGER, David Turner, is panicking. It is nearly 7 p.m., and the guest of honor is not in his seat.
“The show must start on time or we will incur insane overtime costs with the theater staff,” Turner says, frantically. He runs around, finally locating Wagner outside the theater, waiting patiently at the end of the line. He ushers him quickly to his seat.
“We did not even give him a program,” Goodrich says, laughing. “We wanted it all to be a surprise.”
The show opens with “A Michigan Overture,” first orchestrated and arranged by Sam Davis, ’98, for the MT department’s 25th anniversary celebration. Songwriter Andrew Lippa, ’87, sings from his musical “Big Fish.” Composer and lyricist Jeff Marx, ’93, and the classes of 1984 to 2007 sing a number from his show “Avenue Q.” David Kirshenbaum, ’93, jumps on the piano to play a song from his hit “Summer of ’42,” accompanied by David Burtka, ’97, on vocals. The classes of 2008 to 2016 close the first act with a snappy version of “The Victors” arranged by A.J. Holmes, ’11.
The second act is no less impressive. Jerry DePuit, who worked with Wagner for decades, plays the medley of Wagner’s favorite songs he arranged, accompanied by a half dozen alumni. Next up is the duo of Benj Pasek, ’07, and Justin Paul, ’07, who wrote the music and lyrics for “A Christmas Story” and their current hit, “Dear Evan Hansen.” The two perform, for the first time, “Amazing Blue,” a song specifically written for this show.
For the finale, some 300 alumni in the audience stand with those in the cast and sing “Sunday in the Park with George,” a Wagner favorite by Stephen Sondheim.
Turner is, again, panicking. The show ran 20 minutes longer than anticipated, including a five-minute standing ovation for Wagner. He has to get the casts, props, and extra equipment out of the theater by midnight. He makes it but, exhausted, skips the cast party around the corner.
IT’S MIDNIGHT AND ALUMNI, students, show organizers, and fans who flew in from Ann Arbor all convene, congratulating one another on the show and celebrating with Wagner. Sitting in a corner with a drink is Ben Whiteley, the music supervisor on the show.
“It was like planning the invasion of Normandy,” he says, chuckling. “But we did it.”
Jennifer Conlin, ’83, is deputy editor of Michigan Alumnus.
The Michigan Musical Theatre Ambassador Endowment Fund has received more than $200,000 in donations. Its first initiative will be the Brent Wagner Speaker Series. Visit www.MMTAEF.org for more information.