In the halls of the Fine Arts Building, among singers and dancers and actors, something’s missing — and the BU theatre department is set on fixing it.
The department is currently undergoing a SUNY-level application process for the addition of a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program in musical theatre. At the time of publication, the formal proposal for the major has been submitted to the University Faculty Senate (UFS) at the State University of New York, which “serves as a deliberative body on educational policies for the SUNY System,” according to the UFS website.
Though the University already offers various musical theatre courses from the theatre department, there is no concentration or track as of yet. University at Buffalo and SUNY Fredonia are currently the only two SUNY schools with a BFA program in musical theatre.
Barbara Wolfe, chair for the BU theatre department, said that the new program is an important step for the department.
“Having a named program will tell BU students and prospective students that we are serious about Musical Theater, and we think that will attract more people to the school,” Wolfe wrote in an email.
Adjunct professor Kevin Oakes teaches the popular Theatre 101: Intro to Musical Theatre course, which was one student shy of reaching its full capacity of 225 students this past semester. Because the course fulfills the University’s Aesthetics general education requirement, the majority of these students are not theatre majors. For those who love musical theatre but don’t wish to major in it, the BFA program will offer new musical theatre courses available to any BU student who has taken the prerequisites.
Tommy Iafrate, an assistant professor of theatre and director of the upcoming Mainstage production of “The Wizard of Oz,” said that a more developed program in musical theatre is something that attracts students to a university.
“Musical theatre is one of those things that a lot of students want to have in a program,” Iafrate said. “Even if a student is coming to Binghamton to major in management or engineering, I think it’s one of those things that a lot of people like.”
A degree in musical theatre may concern some parents, as there is little-to-no job security after graduation. Oakes said that parents aren’t wrong to worry, and that students who choose to study the performing arts must be prepared to handle rejection.
“There’s all sorts of different factors that have nothing to do with talent in whether someone might be cut out for a career in any aspect of theatre,” Oakes said.
To this end, Wolfe said that it’s currently unclear whether the BFA degree will be audition-only or open to all interested students. According to Wolfe, this decision will most likely be made in the future by the department, but she hopes the program will allow students to enter without auditioning as part of their admittance to the University, as is customary for other BFA programs.
“As a devoted part of a Liberal Arts school, we are committed to being available to students who discover their interests after being here as well as students who come in completely focused with a goal in mind when they arrive,” Wolfe wrote in an email. “I think keeping this philosophy will be best for the University at large.”
To begin offering more opportunities for students to hone their musical skills, the department has received funding for a second musical this year. Previously, BU’s theatre department has put on five Mainstage shows a year — one musical, one straight play and a dance show in the fall, and two straight plays in the spring. A second musical, “And the World Goes ‘Round,” a revue showcasing songs by songwriting team Kander and Ebb (“Chicago,” “Cabaret”), will be performed in the spring. The show will be directed and choreographed by David Wynen, assistant professor of dance, with musical direction by Iafrate.
Iafrate said that switching around production roles among the members of the department faculty offers a more holistic program — something that’s important if the department continues to broaden their offerings.
“If I were the only person ever directing the musical, then musical theatre students would only be working with me as a director,” Iafrate said. “This is an opportunity to give them a chance to work with other [professors], and for audience members to see work of a different director.”
The department’s efforts to create a more diverse program extend beyond this. In addition to “And the World Goes ‘Round,” the department has hired Godfrey Simmons, a former professor of theatre at BU who now lectures at Cornell University, as a guest director for another straight play in the spring. The play, “Smart People” by Lydia Diamond, analyzes race, class and gender boundaries through the entangled lives of four young people living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Oakes said that the department is excited to have both a black playwright and director, and plans to cast actors of color to remain true to the written characters. This is an initiative that echoes changes already taking place in the department this semester.
“We’d really like to feel that the department is more inclusive, and I think the only way to do that is if we have more faculty members who represent groups other than white, cisgendered males and females,” Oakes said. “That’s one way that we’re hoping to grow the department, is to have more shows directed and written by performers of color and artists of color.”
Barrier-breaking strides are also being made for Iafrate’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Many of the characters will be played by the opposite gender, and the Wicked Witch of the West will be played by a man in drag. Iafrate said that using theatre to make a statement is important, especially at the university level.
“I think we have a really wonderful opportunity as musical theatre practitioners to promote new ideas,” Iafrate said. “And in that way, I think musical theatre is a political act that I think is important for us to have at every university. At every place where people are having conversations about important social issues, there’s a way for musical theatre to be involved in that.”
If UFS approves the BFA proposal, the degree may be offered as early as fall 2018. Pipe Dream will update this story as information becomes available.