About the College
The Lullaby of Broadway
By Jill Bauer
Excerpted from Miami, The University of Miami Magazine, Winter 2009
UM grads play a bigger part at the top of the New York theater world than you might imagine.
Joshua Henry, B.M. ’06, can picture precisely where he was standing when his manager called in the summer of 2007 to tell him he got the part of Jennifer Hudson’s boyfriend in the Sex and the City movie. “I was in my apartment walking where I am now,” he says by phone from Manhattan. “I dropped to my knees and I had my hand to my face, and I looked up and said, ‘Thank you.’ And I screamed—people must’ve thought there was a robbery going on. I danced around in my underwear (boxers, not briefs) for a few minutes. And then I called my parents, and then Vince.”
“Vince” is Vincent Cardinal, chairman of the University of Miami’s Theatre Arts Department and producing artistic director of the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. Cardinal recalls Henry’s Broadway debut last year as an understudy in the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights (he played the lead role of Benny for a week). Cardinal says his success reflects a typical six-degrees story that began when Henry performed in UM’s annual Senior Showcase, for which students travel to New York each spring. “It’s their welcome to the industry, when they meet casting directors, agents, and managers,” Cardinal explains.
During Showcase, each student had the opportunity to sing and perform a monologue,” Henry says, “and I was fortunate to get a lot of attention from casting directors, specifically from Alison Franck. She called me when I was in Miami and asked me to come for a casting call for Godspell. I went up, auditioned, and got the part the same day.” Henry played the role of Judas at New Jersey’s renowned Paper Mill Playhouse and was slated for the same role in the Broadway production, before it was postponed last year.
His rapid rise is hardly unusual for UM’s theater alums, who come from both the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre Arts and the Frost School of Music’s Musical Theatre program. A scroll through the college’s Theatre Arts alumni Web page reveals a substantial list of heavy hitters—actors, set designers, producers, casting directors, and so on.
It may be a long way from UM’s Jerry Herman Ring Theatre to Broadway—1,300.5 miles, to be exact, according to MapQuest—but many ’Canes have covered that distance at lightning speed. To name drop for a second: Charles Grodin (The Heartbreak Kid and, on Broadway, Same Time Next Year); Saundra Santiago, B.F.A. ’79 (formerly of Miami Vice and recently in the Tony Award-winning revival of Nine, starring Antonio Banderas); Ricardo Hernandez, B.F.A. ’88 (designer for Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change and Topdog/Underdog); composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, A.B. ’53, D.F.A. ’80 (Hello, Dolly! Mame, La Cage Aux Folles); and Mark Medoff, A.B. ’62 (best-known for the Tony Award-winning Children of a Lesser God).
Ernie Sabella, B.F.A. ’75, gained mass exposure on Seinfeld in 1992 as the naked guy on the subway, but his New York stage career actually spans three decades. He recently costarred in the Broadway musical comedy Curtains with David Hyde Pierce.
Actress Janet Aldrich, B.F.A. ’78, says her UM education—including a star turn as Maria in West Side Story opposite fellow alums Ray Liotta, B.F.A. ’77, (Something Wild, Field of Dreams, Goodfellas) and Steven Bauer, A.B. ’78, (Scarface, Traffic) prepared her for the pinnacle. She performed in Broadway productions of Me and My Girl, The Three Musketeers, and Annie. “UM trained me not only in the essentials—acting, singing, dancing, history of theater, technique—but also how to market myself. I learned how to be in the business of show business. Most other professionals I worked with did not get the practical training. We were trained to work,” she adds.
David Alt, the Frost School’s former Musical Theatre program director, rattles off the names of numerous other UM grads who made it to the Great White Way: Lewis Cleale, B.M. ’89, debuted on Broadway in the 1995 Johnny Burke revue Swinging on a Star, nabbing a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical. “Cleale also starred in Spamalot for the last couple of years,” Alt adds.
Veteran performer Gina Kreiezmar, B.M. ’86, has been parodying Broadway legends Liza Minnelli and Patti LuPone in the smash Off-Broadway hit Forbidden Broadway since 1992 (mostly as an understudy so she can spend time with her actor husband and their 11-year-old son). “I really just used to think of myself as a singer-performer, but John Soliday [associate professor in the School of Communication’s Motion Pictures program] brought out the actor in me,” she confesses. “He gave me real confidence that I was funny and a good comedian. And the years at the Ring gave me a foundation that I use to this day.”
Before Forbidden Broadway’s 27-year run ended this year, The New York Times praised Kreiezmar for her “essential parodist’s gift of magnifying without melting whatever she’s sending up.”
The playbill goes on: Lari White Cannon, B.M. ’88, was on Broadway in Ring of Fire, which was cast by alumnus Dave Clemmons, B.M. ’88, a prominent casting director with more than 80 Broadway, Off-Broadway, national touring, and regional productions to his credit. Musical Theatre graduate Keith Butterbaugh, M.M. ’84, played leading character Raoul in Phantom of the Opera and was in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which won a Tony in 2007. Anastasia Barzee, ’88, a Frost School Department of Musical Theatre alumna, also has appeared in several Broadway hits, including Miss Saigon, Urinetown, and Jekyll and Hyde. And this past November, Xavier Cano, B.M. ’06, made his Broadway debut as Sonny in the long-running hit Grease.
Jo Lynn Burks, M.M. ’84, has come full circle. After performing on Broadway, originating the role of Vi Petty in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, she transitioned from stage star to Broadway conductor, keyboardist, and musical director. She is now a voice teacher in the Frost School’s Department of Vocal Performance.
Theater alums fondly recall master classes at the University of Miami taught by luminaries Angela Lansbury (honorary degree ’08), Lucie Arnaz, Jason Alexander, Richard Gere, Michael York, and Jack Klugman. “Theater is traditionally taught by masters passing their craft down, and it’s very practical,” Theatre Arts Chair Cardinal points out. “Our students make connections and that’s how it all starts.”
If they get in. Theatre Arts administrators consider about 1,500 high school students each year and accept just over 1 percent. “There’s a very low student-teacher ratio. We accept 18 new students a year to the conservatory, and our staff is made up of 26 professors. Our program is very focused and very intense,” Cardinal explains.
Cassie Abate, B.F.A. ’06, who is in the national touring cast of Urban Cowboy, attributes her artistic flexibility to training on the 360-degree stage at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. “You have to find ways to tell the audience what to look at. It forces you to think outside the box and be creative,” she says.
Abate’s roommate in New York City, Sara Andreas, B.F.A. ’07, performs in the national tour of Legally Blonde as a “swing” actress, which means she fills in for understudies who get pulled from the ensemble to cover for principals. Sometimes she doesn’t know she’s performing until five minutes before curtain time.
“There’s this number in the show when we have to jump rope, and during rehearsals we jump rope every morning for an hour,” Andreas says. “That’s when I have to remind myself why I’m here and how good it is to be here.”
Like Andreas, who hostessed at a restaurant across the street from Lincoln Center to get by, some UM theater alums say that making it on Broadway was a struggle that often took years of juggling “survival jobs” like waiting tables to support their theater habit.
Others found starring roles behind the scenes. The legendary Broadway press agent Mary Bryant, A.B. ’53, who died in 2004, started out as a UM thespian. Brad Bauner, B.M. ’02, associate general manager of the smash hit STOMP, and producer Josh Fiedler, B.M. ’03, “went more toward administration, casting, and organizational work,” Alt says but points out that their triple-threat skills bolstered their careers. “They are good at what they do because they have been actors, dancers, and singers and didn’t just start as administrators. They walked the walk and know how to put shows together.”
Fiedler was in a few Off-Broadway productions, “but in order to do that, I had to work three jobs, and you never know if you have another show. I kind of fell in love with the business of theater, and I started to see that maybe where I could be most helpful was not necessarily on the stage.” He is currently creative director for Aged in Wood Productions, producer of Altar Boyz, Barefoot in the Park, High Fidelity, Avenue Q, and In the Heights.
Thomas Recktenwald, B.F.A. ’06, is another behind-the-scenes phenom. “Tom has been the stage manager for The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, and Mary Poppins,” Cardinal boasts, full of pride. “He’s a major deal, and I’m kvelling because he doesn’t stop working.”
In the rare times he’s between parts, Joshua Henry goes to the Actors’ Equity Building, sets appointments with casting directors like Bernard Telsey, attends auditions, and hangs out in the Drama Book Shop reading his favorite plays and preparing for the next big break—clearly ready for his close-up.
“He’s amazingly talented, but he came with fewer skills than most kids. But boy, did he work on those skills!” recalls Alt, who was Henry’s voice teacher and went to see his Broadway debut. “He was always prepared. He didn’t waste any time. He had ideas for every song he came in with. This kid came to us with no dance experience, and he became a dancer after finishing our program. He was really hungry for it.”
Although Henry remains humble beyond words, none of his smashing success has been lost on him. One of the grandest moments of his burgeoning career came during the 2008 Tony Awards Ceremony at Radio City Music Hall, where he performed “96,000,” his favorite number from In the Heights (which won a Tony Award for Best Musical that night).
“The whole number is about people talking about what they’d do if they won $96,000,” Henry says. “It’s a number about hopes and dreams—and what can be done with this huge amount of money. And it’s funny, because I actually feel like I’ve won the lottery by being in this show. It represents how quickly it’s come for me and everything I want to do in my future.”
JILL BAUER is a freelance writer based in Miami, Florida.