Warriors in Training
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Warriors in Training

Broadway and ballet veteran Luis Perez directs Manhattan School of Music’s new Musical Theatre Program.
By Fred Cohn
Photographs by Kevin Thomas Garcia

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On the grand staircase at Manhattan School of Music: associate dean and chair of musical theater Luis Perez, center, with students Willie Beaton II, Amber Kiara Mitchell, Xander Pietenpol and MacKenzie Greiner
Photographed at Manhattan School of Music by Kevin Thomas Garcia
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Photographed at Manhattan School of Music by Kevin Thomas Garcia 
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Willie Beaton II jumps in MSM’s Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall
Photographed at Manhattan School of Music by Kevin Thomas Garcia

RANDY GRAFF HAS A MESSAGE TO DELIVER: “You have nothing to prove—only to share.” Leading a master class at Manhattan School of Music in December, the Broadway veteran brims with theatrical energy: she’s only speaking, but as she exhorts the room full of young musical-theater hopefuls, you get the sense that she’s about to burst into a showstopper. “I don’t care about the high note,” Graff says. “I care about what’s inside the high note.” 

Her words could serve as a motto for the conservatory’s new Musical Theatre Program. The four-year bachelor’s program, which admitted its first class of freshmen this fall, is designed to turn its students into what Luis Perez, its chair, calls “triple threats”—actors, singers and dancers. But under the theory that even the most dazzling display of vocal or terpsichorean technique will mean little without an emotional core, the program places acting first among equals.

“We act when we sing. We act when we dance. We act when we act,” Perez says. “Yes, it’s musical theater. But what’s most important is how we tell a story.” 

Compact and charismatic, Perez projects a kind of verve that’s in the best on-with-the-show Broadway tradition. He’s a classical dancer (Joffrey Ballet) turned Broadway hoofer (Phantom of the Opera, Chicago) who in 2006 became head of the musical theater department of Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. Under Perez’s leadership, enrollment boomed, and James Gandre, then dean of Chicago College of Performing Arts and now president of Manhattan School of Music, took notice. “I figured if you can do that in Chicago, you can certainly do it in New York,” he says. 

When Gandre launched the musical-theater initiative at MSM, his hunch proved correct: 220 people applied for the program’s first year. The school accepted about a hundred, anticipating that about a quarter of those students would enroll, yielding a class of twenty-five. But the number of yeses was far greater, ballooning the class to forty-five, with 50 percent on scholarships and the rest paying the full tuition of $44,100. The unexpected enrollment entailed a scramble for space and teachers’ time. “Next year, we’re doing a wait-list,” Gandre says, with a trace of weariness.

Undoubtedly a large proportion of that first class was drawn to MSM because of its location in the mecca of American musical theater, allowing them opportunities they might not encounter anywhere else. Broadway heavyweights such as Victoria Clark and Joanna Gleason have taught master classes; Graff recently joined the faculty. A group of MSM students sang backup for Kristin Chenoweth in her concert show My Love Letter to Broadway. “People are going to meet these kids and say, ‘Hey, I heard about a summer-stock gig,’ or ‘I know someone who can use you,’” Gandre says. “Those kinds of things happen much more easily in New York than any other place in the nation.”

Another one of the program’s assets, according to Gandre, is its setting within one of the country’s top music conservatories. “It’s different from a theater school,” he says. “A conservatory is a pressure-cooker. You’re around musicians—oboists, violinists—who need to have incredible discipline, and you’re working in this art form that alsorequires incredible discipline.” At the moment, the program has entered into no formal collaborations with other departments, but when the present freshmen become juniors and seniors and put on full-fledged musicals, MSM’s instrumentalists will occupy the pit. 

Gandre initially approached Perez to pitch in as a consultant, but his former colleague had already given notice at Roosevelt, leaving him free to head up MSM’s program. “Luis is an amazing pedagogue,” Gandre says. “He’s tough as nails, and as loving as a good parent.”

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Perez at MSM, with students Amber Kiara Mitchell, Xander Pietenpol, Willie Beaton II and MacKenzie Greiner 

I GET A GLIMPSE OF PEREZ'S tough love at an “Acting for Musical Theatre” class. The students have all shown up with songs prepared. They’ve not only memorized words and music; they’ve read the show’s entire script and written out a character dossier. One talented young man sings Sportin’ Life’s “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” his voice brightly projected, his body language embellished with slinky maneuvers. But he lacks urgency. Perez advises him to stay focused on the character’s goal—seducing Bess into following him to New York. When the dope-peddler twice urges Bess to “come along,” Perez says, “You have to repeat the line to make your point stronger. Right now, you’re repeating it because it’s a lyric.” 

The students take even Perez’s most trenchant observations in stride, perhaps because of the palpable affection underneath. When one student seems to be letting her insecurities get in her way, he says, “You are so fucking special”—and he clearly means it, unconditionally. “The normal thing for any performer is to wonder, ‘Am I good enough?’” Perez says to me on another occasion. “I tell them, ‘The only person you have to compete with is the person in the mirror, because that’s the person who’s holding you back. If you’re telling the story, and you’re unique enough, then you don’t have to worry. There may be lots of beautiful blondes out there with beautiful soprano voices, but there’s only one you.’” 

Graff makes the same point in her master class, as she listens to a student belt out “Big Bright Beautiful World,” from Shrek the Musical. He’s a musical-theater natural, with a voice designed to bounce off the back wall of the second balcony, but she picks up the possibility that he may be adhering too close to the original-cast recording. “This is you,” she says. “This isn’t Brian d’Arcy James.”

Perez sees the program as a four-year process to discover just who that “you” might be. “Some programs try to force everybody into a role—you’re the ingénue, you’re the second lead, you’re the character actor,” Perez says. “I don’t believe in that. They’re seventeen or eighteen years old—I get them as young adults, and they graduate as adults. The shy little girl freshman year may turn into a sexy vamp. The nerdy kid could turn into a gorgeous leading man. I believe in pushing them in every direction, so they’re stretching their muscles until they figure out who they are.”

The program demands a discipline most teenagers aren’t required to summon. Classes generally last from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with rehearsals at night for the end-of-semester workshop performance. That’s the freshman workload; during sophomore year, it will get more intense. Perez calls it “the sophomore boot camp” and explains that this is typically when some students decide that they might not be cut out for musical theater. In senior year, the curriculum will incorporate a professional-development component, teaching skills ranging from getting a good headshot to investing in a 401(k). (“I didn’t know about taxes and investment vehicles, and I ended up leaving a lot of money on the table,” Perez says.)

The program’s Student Handbook spells out rules that would flummox most college freshmen. Two absences from a class will result in a half-point lowering of the student’s letter grade; four or more absences earn an automatic F. “Don’t be late, and don’t skip class, period,” the handbook says, in Perez’s distinctive voice. There’s a compelling reason behind this strictness: the students are learning the demands they’ll face when they enter the world of show business.

Everybody takes private voice lessons and ensemble singing, ballet and tap, acting and speech, music-theater history, music theory and piano, as well as a core of humanities courses. In Perez’s own “Conditioning” class, they train to do eighty pushups in a row, and to hold a plank pose, on their elbows, for three minutes at a time. “They’re eighteen years old,” he says. “Unless you raise the bar, they don’t know how hard they can work.”

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Perez at MSM, with students Amber Kiara Mitchell, Xander Pietenpol, Willie Beaton II and MacKenzie Greiner
Hair: Melissa Matto; MakeUp: La Sonya Gunter; photo Assistant: Joshua First

I SIT IN ON AN ACTING CLASS taught by actress Laura Sametz, who tries to instill the physical and emotional skills needed to be an effective performer. One group exercise casts the students as cogs in a Rube Goldberg-like machine; another requires them to play scenes with each other in self-invented gibberish. All are aimed at suppressing their self-consciousness and bolstering their spontaneity.

Sametz tells me later that one of her chief aims is to counteract that present-day enemy of physical and emotional expressivity—the smartphone. “They spend their lives with their phones right in front of them,” she says. “Their bodies and their expression are in a small kinesphere. When they walk, their arms don’t swing. They aren’t as comfortable with language as we were, because they aren’t talking, they’re texting. I’m getting them to do a lot of movement, to learn to express with their whole body, to connect with each other and the music and the text in a way that you can’t get with a phone or an iPad or a computer.” 

Not a note of music is heard in Sametz’s class, but the students are expected to perform the lyrics of songs they’re learning, to better understand the emotional undercurrents. As one young woman recites “I’ll Be Here,” from Ordinary Days, Sametz stops her at the words “And the week after that drank hot chocolate all day.” “Where’d you have that chocolate?” she asks. 

The question echoes a line Perez invokes like a mantra in his own Acting for Musical Theatre class: “Specificity, specificity, specificity.” At that class, a student performs “Lonely Town,” from On the Town. His voice, as heard in close quarters, is stupendous—a full-throated, John Raitt-like baritone. But Perez stops him sharply at the line “A love that’s shining like a harbor light.” 

“This song is about sex,” he says. “What were you thinking about there?” “About a lighthouse,” the kid answers, sheepishly. “You were thinking about a lighthouse? How old are you?” “Twenty.” “Man, when I was twenty, all I could think about was women!” The line gets an appreciative laugh, but Perez has made his point, vividly: musical theater takes flight when the performer gives it deep emotional resonance. 

“These kids give me so much energy,” Perez tells me. “I don’t have a degree in anything, but this is what I love—this is what I’ve done all my life. To be able to pass it down—there’s nothing more thrilling than that. I like that my students are out there doing what my generation did. I like making theater warriors.” spacer 

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