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The Remarkable Talent of Penn State's Musical Theatre Program

by on April 24, 2018 5:00 AM

Less than two weeks from today, Penn State’s spring semester will have concluded, a majority of the students will have departed, and Happy Valley will become a small town again for the summer months.

For some of those students the departure will be permanent – at least with regard to their “student” status. Commencement will have taken place, and the new graduates will head off into the world to make their way as, hopefully, gainfully-employed adults.

Among that mass of 8,000-plus spring semester bachelor’s degree graduates will be many bright and gifted students. Students with outstanding skills in engineering, chemistry, athletics, art, humanities, education and many more specialties.

A very small subset of those graduating students – one dozen to be exact – are extremely talented young adults who will graduate from the musical theatre program in the College of Arts and Architecture’s School of Theatre.

Did I mention these students are talented? That’s talented with a capital “T”. (And yes, that still rhymes with "P" and that stands for pool!)

“Well, how talented?” you ask.

First, Penn State’s musical theatre program is ranked in the top five of collegiate musical theatre programs in the country, according to OnStage. And if you need another reason to hate the University of Michigan, this is it – they’re ranked No. 1. At least Ohio State isn’t anywhere near the list – they don’t have a musical theatre program. But the main point is this: the Penn State program is good. Exceptionally good.

Second, the gauntlet just to get into the program is daunting. Applicants have to supply a video that includes a memorized monologue from a contemporary script, two contrasting vocal pieces – one of which must be written prior to 1970 – and 30 to 60 seconds of dance. Of the hundreds who submit applications, a select few are then invited for live auditions either on-campus, or in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. From there, 12 students are chosen to go through the program, making it one of the most selective programs at Penn State.

Once in the program the students get a conservatory-style experience with all the additional outside benefits of a large university. The faculty is made up of working actors, dancers, music directors, choreographers and directors (no “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” situations here) and with 10 faculty members to a total of 48 students in the entire program (4.8-1 student/teacher ratio is pretty darn good!) the training is individualized, specific and demanding. But it also creates a level of trust and genuine caring between the students and teachers that makes their relationships all the more special and likely contributes to the end-result: great quality.

The result of all that training is the Talent I mentioned above. Amazing, transcendent, show-stopping Talent. You don’t have to drive four hours to get Broadway-quality entertainment. When these musical theatre students put on a performance, you get Broadway-quality entertainment right here in Happy Valley.

To offer another benchmark of how good these students are – especially the seniors who are about to graduate – here is a personal anecdote. Two Fridays ago at the Downtown Theatre Center in State College, the musical theatre seniors held their “PLACES 2018” event. It’s a chance for the graduating students to create a professionally recorded digital video of one knockout performance which they can post on their websites and YouTube channels. A live audience assembles, each student does two takes of their chosen song with live accompaniment, high-quality digital footage is shot from multiple camera angles, and then afterward edited together to create a marketing tool for these young musical theatre artists.

Well, you can do the math – 12 students, a few minutes per song, some helpful direction between each take, and then we get to hear a bit about each student’s amazing journey in a short question-and-answer session with John Simpkins, head of the musical theatre program, plus an intermission midway through. The event can stretch for a few hours.

My wonderful wife joined me for that evening which started at 7:30 p.m. You should know that she has long since given up her late-night collegiate ways, has a difficult time staying engaged during nighttime activities and can usually be found in bed by at least 10 p.m.. She not only chose to stay during the entire senior showcase, she was spellbound.

Not only by the singing and performances, but by the personal stories. Some of these students came to school questioning their ability to sing and by senior year they fill the room with their voice. Others had various personal difficulties due to circumstances beyond their control. But each of them learned to follow their passion early in life – and that took a great deal of courage. And it results in wonderful performances for those of us in the audience.

“But John,” you say,“these students are graduating. We won’t get to see them around here anymore.”

That’s true. It’s sad these seniors are leaving and taking their talents elsewhere. However, if you are in New York City on Wednesday, May 2, you can see them put on their Showcase 2018 at New World Stages at 340 W. 50th St.

And, the silver lining is that right behind these seniors are three full classes of equally talented students and an incoming freshman class ready to take Penn State by storm. So, starting next fall, instead of vegetating on the couch while watching another episode of some reality singing competition, get out and watch one of the Penn State Centre Stage shows to see and hear what that experience sounds like live and in person. You will love it.

(Full disclosure: I have been a member of the Penn State Centre Stage Board for several years and am now on their Community Advisory Council. Although this may make me more familiar with their shows, I can assure you it doesn’t color my opinions about the talent.)



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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