March-April 2012 | Practicing to Be a Pro

Broadway Dance Center’s Musical Theater Performance Project

By Joshua Bartlett

It was in 2009 that a mega-watt light bulb went on in Joshua Bergasse’s head. Having taught a regularly scheduled intermediate/advanced musical-theater dance class at Broadway Dance Center in New York, he saw real talent that needed special attention. “I get a lot of great dancers, but sometimes I only get them once a week,” says Bergasse. “I don’t get time to invest in their futures as much as I would like to.” The solution: create a weeklong summer intensive to immerse aspiring dancer/singer/actors in the training and the process required of New York musical theater.

Students pick up Smash choreography from its creator, MTPP artistic director Bergasse. (Photo by Broadway Dance Center)

Then his idea grew bigger: “I thought, this being New York, there are so many tools here, such a great amount of resources and faculty and shows and choreographers and directors. Why should it just be me?”

So he approached Diane King, executive director of Broadway Dance Center, and asked if she had any interest in sponsoring an intensive led by musical-theater professionals. She jumped at the suggestion, and the first Musical Theater Performance Project debuted in August 2009.

The intensive, usually held the second week of August, is geared toward performers ages 15 to 25, with a special eye on seniors in college musical-theater programs who are ready to move to New York but don’t yet know the ins and outs of the profession. During the week, the MTPP presents classes and seminars on musical-theater dance technique, including various jazz and tap styles; workshops in which Broadway choreographers create original numbers on the students; dance captains teaching Broadway choreography from existing shows (followed by the students watching the shows that night); talkback sessions with performers from the shows they attend; singing and acting lessons; audition technique classes; mock auditions and feedback with Broadway talent agents; the Performance Project showcase, featuring all the workshop participants at the Ailey Citigroup Theater; and assorted seminars on everything from head shots and resumes to nutrition and injury prevention.

You might wonder if there is any time to breathe in the span of a week. “Every day there was another person you were so fortunate to work with,” says Zanza Steinberg, a 21-year-old native of Manchester, England (turned New Yorker) who has taken the last two intensives. “The hours were very long, from 9am to 8pm. [The experience] showed my true potential for how I could push myself.”

The list of participating faculty reads like a who’s who of Broadway production, although Bergasse, who is currently the choreographer for the NBC series Smash, refers to them as “just buddies of mine.” He says, “We grew up together in the theater and dance community. I called them up and said, ‘Do you want to teach?’ I talked about what the program was like and what we were trying to do and everybody got very excited.”

Among those teachers and choreographers are Andy Blankenbuehler, a veteran Broadway performer who won a Tony Award for his choreography for In the Heights; Tony-nominated Broadway director/choreographer Randy Skinner; Paige Davis, star of Chicago and Boeing-Boeing on Broadway; Rachel Bress, Broadway and off-Broadway choreographer of shows such as 9 to 5 and Dirty Blonde; and Lorin Latarro, who has starred in the Broadway musicals A Chorus Line and Guys and Dolls.

Choreographer, performer, and director Noah Racey has been involved with the MTPP since its inception in 2009. For the 2011 intensive, Racey choreographed a recession-appropriate song-and-dance number to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” that the participants performed at the Performance Project showcase on the closing night. “I thought it was a really poignant piece,” says Racey. “I do a lot of acting with them. I get them working from a place of character and from a place of paying attention to the text. I like to drive home the idea of musical theater being a multi-discipline, collaborative art form where you have to pay rigorous attention to respecting three different art forms. I work them really hard on diction and movement and attention to detail—making them realize how much they bring to the table just by walking into the room.”

For the repertoire class given daily, the 2011 participants learned excerpts from

The Book of Mormon, Anything Goes, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,

A Chorus Line, Altar Boyz, and Sister Act. And Blankenbuehler taught a segment from Bring It On, a new cheerleading musical he directed and choreographed that is touring the United States and Canada until the beginning of June.

Chelsea File, a 19-year-old student at The New School who auditions during her spare time, has taken part in the MTPP for all three years, including as a scholarship recipient in 2011. File lays out a typical intensive schedule: “We do a warm-up with a choreographer each day at 9 and then we have a repertoire class, usually from a piece we are seeing that night or doing in the showcase. We have singing or acting for an hour. After lunch there are two hours of rehearsal for each of the pieces we are performing. And we usually see a show at night, but each day is a little different.”

File says the workshop has given her more confidence, especially in performing. “Each piece is stylistically so different,” she says. “In the past, I did a Fosse piece that was very slow and stylized with everything being small and about the movement as a whole. And then Josh [Bergasse]’s piece, which is crazy fast with kicks and turns.”

“This is real; it’s not just a workshop for kids. It’s a really terrific scene that introduces you to great contacts. It’s a step in the right direction for anyone who wants a career in musical theater.” —Zanza Steinberg

Six pieces by six choreographers were presented for the Performance Project showcase, which happened on the final night of the intensive. (The 2011 intensive ran August 9 to 15.) Last summer, choreographer Wendy Seyb, for example, created a piece called Geek Fantasy, a dance comedy where the dancers had to make choices about character development. Melissa Mahon, who has performed every female role in the Broadway production of Chicago, including Roxie and Velma, choreographed “The Juggernaut,” a jazz number with challenging vocals, from Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party. Latarro created a top-hat-and-cane routine from Cy Coleman’s Little Me, while Grady Bowman crafted a Fosse-like piece called Me and My Shadow(s). And Bress choreographed a tricky ensemble number to “I Got Rhythm.”

Each intensive participant appears in two of the pieces. All 50 of last summer’s MTPP dancers appeared in the finale piece, “Gravity/I Believe I Can Fly,” staged by Bill Castellino, a producer and director of numerous Broadway musicals and plays.

One of the most valuable faculty members has been Sheila Barker, who teaches a jazz technique class that incorporates singing. “Sheila is very innovative in the way she teaches,” says Bergasse, who earned his chops hoofing in numerous Broadway musicals. “She knows these are theater kids who are very strong dancers but don’t always know how to use their voice when they are dancing or how to express themselves that way. So she adds vocals to her jazz class. She gets them to shout and exhale.”

The fact that the dancers get a mock audition before agents from talent agencies such as Clear Talent Group, MSA (McDonald/Selznick Associates), and bloc NYC makes MTPP singular in its approach. “There is tons of information about auditioning,” says Bergasse. “The agents tell them what they are doing right and wrong—and they are brutally honest.” Included in the program is a “411” (informational) Q&A class with agents for an hour and a half. And everyone has to dance and sing for the mock audition.

“The mock audition is very real,” says Steinberg, who now goes regularly to auditions in the city and knows what to expect. “They give you feedback and you take that with you as your first step. It was a lot to take in the first year, and I wouldn’t have seen the progression myself if I hadn’t done it the second year.”

Steinberg feels that this intensive best suits those who are young and seriously ready to come to the city. “It gets you to stand on your own two feet,” she says. “This is real; it’s not just a workshop for kids. It’s a really terrific scene that introduces you to great contacts. It’s a step in the right direction for anyone who wants a career in musical theater.”

The cost of the 2011 intensive was $895 and included all classes, seminars, and rehearsals, plus the showcase and tickets to two Broadway shows. (Students pay for any other shows they attend.) Housing is a separate cost, although Broadway Dance Center has options and suggestions for short-term housing. Most rehearsals are held at the Ailey Studios in midtown Manhattan. Bergasse has thought about expanding the intensive to two or three weeks, but for now it stays at one week.

Those who wish to apply for the MTPP must submit an application (downloadable from broadwaydancecenter.com), a head shot, a performance and training resume, a letter of recommendation, and a DVD or YouTube URL that includes singing 32 bars of vocals that show range and ability and one to two minutes of dance that displays technique and musicality. The application fee is $25.

So what do you get at MTPP you wouldn’t get elsewhere? “They get to work one-on-one and in concentrated groups with currently working professionals, people who are creating on Broadway, people who have dedicated themselves to this art form,” says Racey, who has appeared on the Great White Way in Follies and Thoroughly Modern Millie. “They get to experience being around people who are working in this field in this city at the top of their abilities.”

A number of MTPP alumni already have burgeoning careers. Eric Stevens, for example, performed on an international Equity tour of Miss Saigon and has done music videos in L.A. with the Black Eyed Peas and other recording artists. Julianne Katz has played Hodel on a national tour of Fiddler on the Roof. Kiley Hinkle has appeared in regional theater in Bye Bye Birdie, 42nd Street, and Hairspray. And Jeremy Miranda, after attending two MTPP intensives, signed with McDonald/Selznick Associates and has appeared on TV shows like Gossip Girl and Running Wilde. He dances with Shen Wei Dance Arts.

For Bergasse, the ultimate goal for MTPP has always been clear: “We want to take students who are truly aspiring musical-theater artists, who are on the cusp of being professional, and give them the tools they need and the relationships in the Broadway community they need to actually go pro.”