by Marilou Carlin 06/28/2016
Every spring, graduating seniors in the Department of Musical Theatre travel to New York City and sing their hearts out for agents and casting directors at what is basically one grand audition: the annual Senior Showcase. This is their big chance to make an impression on those who have the potential to jumpstart their Broadway careers.
Choosing the perfect Showcase song is critical-students need to show off their vocal skills while demonstrating what character type they can excel at playing, making them both memorable and cast-able.
"Finding ideal songs (or an ideal role) for a performer can be very difficult," said Department of Musical Theatre Chair Brent Wagner. "It's somewhat like buying clothes: something that looks appealing on a display might not be right once you try it on."
Fortunately, SMTD students have a secret weapon in this daunting task: musical theatre alumnus Todd Buonopane (BFA '00). For the past nine years he has been the Showcase coach, helping students choose the perfect song and deliver show-stopping performances.
A Massachusetts native, Buonopane's credentials for this special role are twofold: he is a successful musical theatre artist with plenty of audition experience, and, by his own admission, he is a musical theatre nerd who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and its music.
As a freshman, taking the prerequisite overview course "Introduction to Musical Theatre," taught by Wagner, Buonopane said, "I was always the one in his class with my hand up. The course creates both a respect and a passion for the art form"
Like most of Wagner's students, Buonopane stayed in touch with him after graduation. "I saw that Todd remained levelheaded, professional, and deeply caring about his colleagues," said Wagner. "And above all, he remained joyous about the field. It occurred to me that he would be a great mentor for the seniors-an optimistic leader with an insightful command of the repertoire. After nine years, I can certainly say that my hunches have proven to be correct - Todd has an uncanny ability to match students with songs that show them to perfection."
"Professor Wagner knew that I knew the repertoire," said Buonopane. "And I think he also knew that an outside eye was important. The faculty have known these people for four years, and during that time the students have grown so much; it's hard to not see them as the 18-year-olds they were when they arrived on campus."
Ross Yoder, a senior, believes this is an invaluable asset. "Todd comes in with fresh eyes, knowing nothing about who we are, what we've done here, or what we want to do with our careers," he said. "He can observe us through the same lens that our Showcase audience will, and that makes such a huge difference in the way we will present ourselves."
Buonopane explains that agents and casting directors are always looking to fill their rosters with a variety of "types" that can fit into certain roles: the ingénue, the funny guy, the leading man, and so on. "The best thing you can do is look a certain way, and perform the way that looks," he said. Once established, artists can often branch out, but in the beginning, projecting a "type" is often what lands that first role.
Work with the students begins in the fall, when Buonopane travels to Ann Arbor, meets the seniors, and assigns each about six songs to learn before he returns in January. "Even if none of them is the right song, I know one of them will be the right path," he said.
"I've loved 90 percent of the material Todd threw at me over the selection process, but 100 percent of the material made sense to me," said Yoder. "It's clear that he puts a whole lot of time into thinking about the perfect song for every single one of us, and that attention to detail is incredibly important."
Christina Maxwell, another 2016 graduate, agrees. "It's amazing how, just from hearing me sing once, Todd seemed to have an instant understanding of the strengths of my voice, my personality, and my potential," she said. "He asked me what I wanted people at Showcase to see. I was torn between wanting to show my soprano voice and my ability to do anything Disney, and also wanting to show the depth of my acting, with an unexpected edge."
Buonopane advised Maxwell that the audience would hope and expect for her to be able to play the "Disney princess/young ingénue," so she should not disappoint. "It simply came down to marketability," said Maxwell. "I really appreciated Todd's honesty and assurance, and his ability to simplify and clarify a decision that could become emotional and stressful."
When he returns to campus in winter, Buonopane schedules individual sessions with students to sing their assigned songs. A choice is ultimately made in consultation with both the student and musical theatre faculty. "I try to make it fun and bring out their sense of humor as much as possible," said Buonopane. He says the professionals in the audience are "buried in paper," making notes and rifling through headshots. "I tell every student they must have a "look up" moment," he said. "The students must have something specific in their song that makes people look up."
"Rehearsing with Todd was always a joy," said Yoder. "Showcase is a stressful time for everyone, and he allowed me to smile through it, and laugh in every meeting with him."
Buonopane's guidance doesn't end with the Showcase song, however; he's also a mentor to every student, offering advice on everything from headshots, to where to look for housing in New York, to dealing with the inevitable stress of the business.
"Todd was an invaluable resource for all things industry related," said Maxwell. "He even put us through mock agent meetings. He asked each of us questions about how we view ourselves and what we want out of our careers, getting us to think about important questions and reminding us never to sell ourselves short."
The actor's own career has been built upon his "funny guy" persona. His first Broadway show was as understudy for all the male roles in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He played three 11-to-13-year-olds and one 45-year-old. Next was a Broadway revival of Grease, and then several television roles, the most high profile of which was on 30 Rock. What started with a five-line part led to a recurring character, a scene-stealing personnel counselor. Although it was several years ago, he is still approached by fans.
Buoyed by his success on 30 Rock, Buonopane moved to Los Angeles for a few years to pursue television and film roles, but after appearing in a musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, his love for musical theatre was reignited and he soon returned to New York.
Soon after, while on tour in Dubai as Amos ("Mr. Cellophane") in the musical Chicago, Buonopane learned that he had landed the second male lead in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, which he performed for the duration of its Broadway run. Most recently, he co-starred in Cake Off, last fall's hit world premiere musical for the Signature Theatre Company in Washington, DC.
But throughout his busy performance career, Buonpane has made time to return to Michigan twice a year to coach the seniors for Showcase. And, as they embark on their careers, he is thrilled that he often gets to perform with the newly minted artists professionally-he coached all 13 SMTD alums who appeared in the Broadway and tour productions of Cinderella.
"In the end, I'm the graduate who knows the most Michigan kids," he said. "I've worked with them all."
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