by Marilou Carlin07/08/2015
When you're a graduate of one of the top musical theatre programs in the country, it's not uncommon to find yourself cast with another alum in the same Broadway production. But in the case of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, it's been a veritable School of Music, Theatre & Dance reunion.
Nine Department of Musical Theatre BFA graduates had roles in Cinderella during its two-year Broadway run, which concluded in January. Another four joined the tour that began last fall, making for a total of 13 Wolverines who contributed to bringing the beloved fairy tale to life on stage. Cinderella went on to become a winner of Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards, and was one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. It's now playing to packed houses around the country.
The Broadway cast included Joe Carroll ('12) playing Prince Topher for nearly a year; Jessica Hershberg ('08) as Cinderella to Carroll's Prince, performing twice a week as the alternate for pop star Carly Rae Jepson, and otherwise performing in the ensemble; and Todd Buonopane ('00), playing Jean Michel, the show's second leading male role, also for a year.
Andy Huntington Jones ('11), a member of the original cast who understudied the role of Prince Topher, left the show after the first year of its run to join the company of Bullets Over Broadway, with Michigan graduates Helene Yorke ('07) and Kelcy Griffin ('09), and now stars as the Prince on tour.
"Cinderella is the musical in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon that slipped through the cracks," said Jones, referring to the fact that the show, originally produced for television in 1957, 1965, and 1997, had never been on Broadway. "To bring this classic musical to Broadway for the first time felt like living the lessons we learned in class about the golden age of musical theatre."
The other Broadway performers included ensemble members Sam Lips ('12), who also doubled as the Prince's understudy (now starring in the title role of Pippin on tour); Robert Hartwell (BFA '09); Laura Irion ('11); Cody Davis ('11); and Conor Ryan ('14), who left the show to play the lead in a revival of Andrew Lippa (BM '87) and John Greenwald's John & Jen.
In addition, Cinderella was choreographed by Josh Rhodes ('93), who received nominations for Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for his work. Adding to the maize and blue juggernaut, two of the show's producers are also U-M alums: Sandy Robertson (BBA '53, MBA '54) and Matthew Rego (BFA '92). Robertson, with his wife Jeanne, supports a generous scholarship fund for musical theatre students at SMTD, as does Rego, whose company, The Araca Group, also provides SMTD students with early-career development opportunities through his company's Araca Project.
For the performers, it was almost like being back at SMTD.
"Cinderella felt like a University Production all the time," said Joe Carroll. "Sam Lips, who was my understudy for a time, had been my roommate during sophomore year. My current roommate in New York, Cody Davis, came into the show over the summer and we would commute to work together! It was an unbelievable experience."
"To perform in a Broadway show with so many other Michigan alums was wonderful," said Jessica Hershberg. "Going to Michigan was my first real foray into musical theatre-I had studied to be a ballet dancer before I switched pursuits. Performing in Cinderella, and playing the title role, I was living out some of my biggest dreams with many of the people with whom I first shared those dreams in college. We were seeing our collective hopes come true together, at the same time. It was awesome."
Todd Buonopane had a particularly interesting relationship with his Michigan castmates: for the last eight years, he's been the repertoire coach for SMTD's Senior Showcase in New York City, where seniors perform for casting directors and producers; he coached all of those who were ultimately hired for Cinderella. Once they cross that threshold of landing a role, he said, they become peers, but he always remains available for advice.
"We joke about the 'Michigan Mafia' in NYC, but there's certainly some truth behind it," he said "We look out for each other. There's a lot of Michigan pride here. And my Michigan classmates are still my best friends today."
With Cinderella's national tour now underway-performances are scheduled well into next year in nearly two dozen cities-the U-M presence continues. In addition to Jones, the tour includes ensemble members Sean Seymour ('13), also the current Prince understudy, as well as Jordana Grolnick ('14) and Adrian Baidoo ('13). A fourth alum, Ashley Park ('14), was playing stepsister Gabrielle when she was cast as Tuptim in yet another Rodgers & Hammerstein show, the Broadway revival of The King and I, which opened in April.
Of the Cinderella Wolverines, only Jones was in the original company and has had the unique opportunity of appearing with one set of alumni on Broadway and another on tour. He credits his SMTD training with helping him successfully step into the lead role.
"For me, the biggest difference between Cinderella on Broadway and on tour has been my transition from understudy to principal," said Jones. "As we began rehearsals for the tour, I found myself relying on techniques I learned at Michigan to find my version of Prince Topher. After understudying Santino Fontana on Broadway, I wanted to find my own voice. Without Michigan's training, I would have been stuck copying someone else.
"But working with so many graduates on this production has felt oddly normal," he added. "Michigan graduates are a strong presence in the New York theatre scene-they are everywhere! Whether in the company or on the creative team, the presence of fellow Wolverines is a reassurance that our coworkers will be talented, professional, and kind."
Carroll fully agrees: "The musical theatre alumni base in New York City is unbelievable," he said. "From having smiling faces behind casting desks, like Rachael Hoffman (BFA '99), to choreographers like Josh Rhodes, to the countless actors who spend Saturdays dressed in maize and blue, cheering on our football team-it's like a family helping you navigate an incredibly difficult, heartbreaking, but also incredibly fulfilling business. I feel so lucky to have Michigan on my resume."
You could almost say it's like having a fairy godmother.
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